The tiger’s roar filled the cave with thunder. Mother Wolf shook herself clear of the cubs and sprang forward, her eyes, like two green moons in the darkness, facing the blazing eyes of Shere Khan. — Rudyard Kipling in “Mowgli’s Brothers” from “The Jungle Book” (1894)
Gather around, my friends, and I will tell you the story of the man who could never die, who, some say, still walks the streets of our village at night, and then—if most of you are still awake—I’ll tell you the story of the tiger Shere Khan whose eyes burn brightly in the night when he prowls near campfires like this looking for his wife.
Like all great storytellers, author Téa Obreht demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt in “The Tiger’s Wife” that memorable stories live at the crossroads of fact and fable. Doctor Natalia Stefanovic is treating children at an orphanage in an unspecified Balkan country when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. The details are unclear. They provide no closure.
While seeking closure, Natalia remembers the times they spent together when she was young, their trips to the zoo to see the tigers, and the rather fantastic stories he told of his own youth. He told her the story of the deathless man and he told her the story of the tiger’s wife. Her grandfather experienced the events in these stories when he was a child, and like all memorable stories, they were somewhat true and somewhat pure potential and supposition, believed to varying degrees by those in the village who kept their children indoors at night when the tiger owned the streets.
Obrecht tells us these stories in bits and pieces as Natalia juggles the real world of the orphanage and the superstitions of those in the village where the orphanage is located with the fables out of her grandfather’s past. To learn how and where he died, she will walk present day roads laden with stories and she will walk into her memories of the tiger and the man who could never die, and when all is said and done, the truth of the matter will be a mix of everything she encounters at the crossroads.
“The Tiger’s Wife” is dark and deep and perfectly crafted, and if you allow yourself to be immersed in it, you will see the blazing eyes of Shere Khan.
—Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, a novel of magical realism where fact and fable mix.