This book looked interesting when I saw it was available as an e-book from the Hood County Library, when I first got a Kindle in April 2013. I've been meaning to read it for some time, so the Summer Reading Challenge was a great excuse.
Téa Obreht will be 30 years old on September 30, 2015. Her debut novel, a National Book Award finalist and British Orange Prize for Fiction winner was first published in 2010.
It's a braided narrative, with all the stories set in an unnamed Balkan country (Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia). One story is set (more or less) in the present, just after the various Yugoslav Wars. Natalia is a doctor on her way to a coastal orphanage with her friend Zora to vaccinate the children there. While traveling, she learns that her beloved grandfather has died under mysterious circumstances.
The other two threads in the narrative braid are folkloric tales of magical realism that her grandfather, also a doctor, used to tell Natalia. One involves his encounters over the years with a "deathless man," who cannot die himself, but comes when others are about to die. The other dates back to his childhood in a remote village and the interesting characters there, including Darisa the Bear, a taxidermist and hunter; an unnamed apothecary; Luka the butcher; and Luka's deaf-mute wife - called "the tiger's wife" because she befriends a tiger lurking near the village that escaped from a city zoo. All of these people have their own back stories, which Obreht relates in the novel as well.
This book has some interesting things to say about death (pages 154 and 300-301 in particular) and war. Here is a good quote concerning the latter, from page 283:
But now, in the country's last hour, it was clear...that the cease-fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose--to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent--it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling--when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event--there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.
There are also some insights about fear (page 168):
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate, and that, when they're gone, we're left with the concept, but not the true memory--why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once?
and about superstition and deceit (page 312):
...the apothecary learned to read white lies, to distinguish furtive glances between secret lovers that would precipitate future weddings, to harness old family hatreds dredged up in fireside conversations that allowed him to foresee conflicts, fights, sometime even murders. He learned, too, that when confounded by the extremes of life--whether good or bad--people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening. He learned that, no matter how grave the secret, how imperative absolute silence, someone would always feel the urge to confess, and an unleashed secret was a terrible force.
Obreht writes well. I hope she isn't a one-hit wonder.
© Amanda Pape - 2015
[This book was borrowed from and returned to the Hood County Library.]