This 2011 debut novel sure was an interesting read. It is set in an unnamed Balkan country, which seems to be near the Turkish border, so maybe Bulgaria? Well, not important. The time is the present, told in first person narrative by a young woman doctor, on her way with her friend to give inoculations and other health care to children in a remote city, across the border that separates what was once their single country.
She receives a call from her grandmother who has learned that her husband (the grandfather) has died in some also remote area. This sets off a long episodic reminiscence by the young woman of her girlhood with her grandfather. These memories include tales told to her by her grandfather of his boyhood in a far village, which revolve around a tiger escaped from a bombed out zoo who managed to get to this area searching for food and shelter, and a deaf mute girl, the abused young wife of the local butcher, who befriends the tiger by secretly providing meat she has taken from the butcher’s hanging shed. The villagers eventually become very wary of this girl, and begin to call her the tiger’s wife. Being uneducated villagers, they start to come up with tales that claim that she turns into a tiger at night, or that the tiger visits her in the house every night. You know, the kind of stuff that got women labeled as witches and burned at the stake in days of yore.
The other story he tells is of the deathless man, the man who cannot die, who can predict a person’s demise in a tea cup, and whom the grandfather meets three times.
The young doctor’s memories are constantly interspersed with her journey and the happenings in the little village she goes to, where some foreign family is digging digging digging in the orchard of the family of the local priest. It turns out that during the war, the older digger had to leave his dead brother in that area, being forced to flee. He buries the brother, intending to come back for his remains so that the proper rituals can be conducted so that the deceased man can go to the crossroads and his soul taken up to heaven.
Her childhood activities included weekly visits to the local zoo with her grandfather, to see the tiger. The tiger figures prominently throughout the book, acting as some kind of metaphor for something. No Sparknotes, so how am I to know what to think?
It is something of a coming of age book, but not much, something of historical fiction, but not overwhelming, and a lot about relationships — the grandparents’ relationship, the relationship of the grandparents to the narrator, the relationship of the grandfather as a young boy with the elusive tiger in the village environs, and with the mute girl bride. There are secrets, deaths, apparent murders, the relating of old old customs and rituals connected with death and dying, and just a soupçon of paranormal, just enough to leaven a fairly dense loaf.
Some call it a YA book, but for me, it did not feel like that at all. It felt all grown up, complete with the unsolved mysteries that plague all our lives. It might be thought of as chick lit, because of the female narrator, but not really, (maybe because the grandfather and his life figures so prominently), and perhaps with not enough gravitas to be fully considered literary fiction, what with the deathless man who could not die. I don’t know. Good thing I am not in charge of declaring genres for books. I would be in a constant dither.
I really liked this book. Well worth reading