The Tiger's Wife (out in paperback today) took me a bit to get into--mostly because I couldn't help but compare it to How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, the gold standard by which I shall measure all future novels touching even tangentially on the 1990s Serbian-Bosnian conflict. The books have more in common than just setting: both begin with the deaths of the narrator's grandfather, both contain elements of (though I hate the term) magical realism; thematically, both deal with communal memory, how the events of our childhood are colored and created by how we remember and retell them.
At some point I didn't notice, though, The Tiger's Wife grabbed me and held on, and I would look up surprised that time had passed, because it felt like everything else should have frozen as the story rolled out. While there are many stories crossing in and out of the narrative--the travails of being a med student in post-war Serbia, with such a lack of intact cadavers; the narrator's attempts to vaccinate a group of orphans living in a monastery across the border--the two most crucial are the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man, "the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other . . . how he became a child again."
The tiger here isn't metaphorical: he escapes from the Belgrade zoo during the WWII bombing of the city, and makes his way into the forest outside her grandfather's tiny hometown of Galina, where the half-tame beast is befriended by a deaf-mute girl married to (and brutally beaten by) the town's butcher. The deathless man? A wandering-Jew sort, unable to die but able to tell others when their death is imminent. The narrator becomes convinced her grandfather was trying to find him before his own death, and sets out to seek him herself.
I will say I found the narrator's journey the least interesting part of the book; for me, it was slowly learning the stories of the tiger and his human wife, and the lonely immortal. Obreht's writing is lyrical and smooth, and she's hilariously young for being so talented (born in 1985! She's also blonde and pretty, which the cynic in me suspects is a contributing factor to her critical darlingness). All in all, The Tiger's Wife won me over, and I'll definitely back the general recommendation; in fact, it's now my go-to handsell for book club ladies. (You should also read How the Soldier, though. Tell Saša I sent ya.)