While praising Obreht for writing with great lyrical force, some have criticized her for writing a disjointed novel. I disagree. Her novel's central question asks, "How do people respond to death?"
The setting is the Balkans, an area with complex histories and cultures -- all wrestling with death in one form or another: death from disease, from poverty and from violence both small within the walls of a family's home or large-scale as with air raid bombing. Death stalks the people of the Balkans like a tiger -- demonstrating its inherent brutality, grace, and stealth. Her characters respond to death in various ways, both literal and symbolic. We respond in a logical, scientific way as do three characters who are physicians. We respond by hunting down death as do a handful of characters. We respond as butchers. As magicians. As ghosts. As artists. As death's lover. As storytellers.
The novel contains a host of characters who symbolize these various responses to death, but it's organized around Natalia and her grandfather, who are both doctors. Her grandfather adopts more than one response to death through his love of stories as indicated by his well-worn copy of The Jungle Book--which notably features a tiger. Even in the present-day, Natalia hears stories from the locals whom she treats, tales that are a mix of old and new, a mix of fact and fiction.
I had to read The Tiger's Wife slowly and with great attention, or it sprang at me with shocking surprises--about the particulars of life in the Balkans and about the universal responses we have to death. Like the tiger that serves as the central symbol, Obreht has created a mesmerizing novel filled with horrible, beautiful force.