A young-adult novel is like porn: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Deep in the oddly innocent pages of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Random House, 352 pages, $25), I found myself wondering why it all felt so familiar. The heroine’s succession of clear-cut quests, her earnest determination to seek the truth, her blandly appealing intelligence-how did I know them, why did I feel I’d read them before? And then I placed it. Oh, I thought, this is a chapter book.
Ms. Obreht was the youngest of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40.” When the magazine’s list of the best young fiction writers came out last summer, she was 24, and had not yet published a book. Having lived through war in her native Yugoslavia, she knows more of the world’s woes than her English-major peers. Experience beyond postcollegiate ennui may explain why she resists the young novelist’s impulse to blow readers’ minds by contriving adult situations or performing formal hijinks. Witnessing armed conflict imparts a becoming sense of modesty.
But Ms. Obreht has stumbled upon a different hazard of precocity. She writes like she’s trying to please the grown-ups, and in so doing produces the good student’s notion of what constitutes a good book. The Tiger’s Wife reads like it belongs in the running for a Newberry rather than a Pulitzer.
The novel is built around uncomplicated family love and a healthy dose of serious history. Natalia, a young doctor in a Balkan country, is delivering vaccines to an orphanage when she learns that her grandfather has died. A doctor as well, he hid his serious illness from all but Natalia-and his death in a remote village becomes all the more baffling when the local hospital returns his body missing all of his belongings. Natalia sets off to discover what happened and comes to suspect her grandfather had an encounter with a mysterious figure she knows only from his stories of a “deathless man.” In chapters interwoven with Natalia’s journey, we meet the deathless man as well as the “tiger’s wife.”
Dogs and ponies are chapter-book stalwarts, and wise readers would do well to gird themselves for emotionally fraught fauna. There is the tiger, of course, a semi-domesticated zoo escapee who enchants the grandfather in his boyhood. There’s a pet dog who inspires a houseful of paintings, a parrot who “likes to recite poetry” and a dancing bear who winds up lovingly taxidermied. The city zoo is Natalia’s temple, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is her scripture. It’s the source of her grandfather’s tiger fascination, and the object of his bet with the deathless man-the thing she most hopes to recover among the belongings lost when he died.
Almost as much as they love animals, plucky protagonists have always liked reading, and the novel reflects a kid bookworm’s fascination with storytelling in all its forms-lies and legends and literature. Whether it’s the wise grandfather with his tattered Kipling or rural nomads with their grimly superstitious chants, this is a world that values words.
Stories about stories, of course, are hardly limited to the children’s shelf at the bookstore. But the action in The Tiger’s Wife depends on a childlike sense that belief in the unbelievable is heroic and that secrets are sacred. The combination means that Ms. Obreht’s adult characters have an inexplicable taste for subterfuge. Natalia takes a break from work to look after her dead grandfather’s affairs: A grown-up might explain this to her colleagues. Instead, Natalia drums up an alibi and sets off in secret. Why? It’s not like she’s running around her boarding school after curfew. She’s just spunky.
And while The Jungle Book is Ms. Obreht’s Kipling of choice, Just-So Stories might be a more convenient comparison for the tidy interludes of character development she tends to provide her supporting players. Like: “Why the Butcher Beats His Wife.” Or: “How the Bear Hunter Came to Terms With Killing.”
Natalia’s portions of the story dissolve in her own dullness. The folk tales are more engaging, but they bear an unfortunate whiff of Yore. They involve sentences like “Mother Vera’s people had always been shepherds.”
Reading The Tiger’s Wife, I began to consider the things that attracted me to books when I myself was a young-adult (i.e., late elementary school) reader. Basically, I was a nerdy lowbrow: I was in it for sex, humor and death. If a book wasn’t going to give me the scoop on puberty or throw me some puns, I wanted it to scare me in a way that felt serious and adult-perhaps with the Holocaust, or cancer.
I no longer demand the hard-won dirty bits or Phantom Tollbooth yuks I required as a 10-year-old. But I still find authors who totally lack interest in both sex (I use this broadly: desire) and humor (whether verbal play or social satire or a sense of absurdity) to be somewhat suspicious. Middlemarch-a book “for grown-up people,” according to Virginia Woolf-is both achy with the discomforts of desire and very, very funny. Ms. Obreht’s chaste, solemn, schoolgirl prose is not for grown-up people.
She delegates perfunctory responsibility for lust and jokes to Zora, Natalia’s cool-girl best friend, who attracts comic leering and says things a bit too spicy for a mild-mannered protagonist. For example: “At the age of thirteen, a priest had told her that animals had no souls, and she had said, ‘Well then, fuck you, pops,’ and walked out of the church.” Of course it’s the animals.
As for death, Ms. Obreht mostly reduces it to spookiness. There’s a campfire quality to the story of the deathless man, with his ever echoing demands, his fortune-telling coffee cup, his reliably surprising visits.
Only in one of his final appearances does the deathless man transcend this. He and the grandfather share antebellum dinner in an abandoned hotel, and Ms. Obreht plays the scene masterfully: the dreamlike sense of ghostliness, the premature mourning for a way of life lost to war, the frantic embrace of pleasure before mortality. It’s as if, suddenly, the narrator has stopped seeming childlike and instead become very old.
This elderly voice proves more appealing than when Ms. Obreht sounds like she’s writing for 11-year-olds. But as a 24-year-old, maybe she could have written a book that had something to do with being 24.