by Ted Gioia

For most of us, our first introduction to the
concept of magic is through the stories told
us by our elders.  As we grow up, we
typically leave these tales behind. Yet even
as we congratulate ourselves for embracing
a world of invigorating realism and stark
practicalities, we realize that something is
lost.  Our connection to our own
past, to the previous generations,
and to the magic of unconstrained
imagination—these are all linked
together through such narratives.  
For this reason the stories of
childhood are often remembered
more vividly than the actual
quotidian events of our earliest

Natalia Stefanovic, the narrator
for much of Téa Obreht's novel
The Tiger's
, has been profoundly shaken by news
of her grandfather's death, and finds herself
returning to the fanciful stories he had
related to her of his own past.  These
accounts seem so true-to-life, despite their
fantastic elements, that Natalia is driven to
probe deeper into her grandfather's personal
history in a quest to uncover the
biographical roots of his improbable
narratives.  The line between the
imaginative excesses of storytelling and the
brutish facts of modern reality begin to blur
almost from the start of Obreht's novel—and
the border between fact and fiction is still
left largely undefended even at the
conclusion of this masterful work.

The same cannot be said for the other
borders dealt with in
The Tiger's Wife. The
novel is set against the backdrop of the
Balkan wars that splintered the former
Yugoslavia and devastated the combating
parties.  Their conflicts seems both timeless
and endless.  "When your fight has purpose—
to free you of something, to interfere on
behalf of an innocent—it has a hope of
finality," writes Obreht, who was born in
Belgrade in 1985, but left at age seven and
spent much of her youth in the United
States. "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 came before them."

Think of these as narrative and counter-
narrative.  On the one hand, we find the
fairy tales of youth, accounts that feed our
imagination and broaden our horizons.  
Opposed to these are the historic
resentments and antagonisms—also handed
down to us in the form of stories from our
elders—which constrain our world view and
disfigure our emotional attachments.  Both
kinds of stories play a role in
The Tiger's
, one constitutive and liberating, the
other destructive and self-immolating.  

Both Natalia and her grandfather are
doctors, and the constant bloodshed
resulting from bombings, land-mines, and
combat, as well as the dislocations and
disease that spread in their aftermath, bring
the medical profession into constant contact
with the turmoil and violence of the era. In
this context, Natalia's grandfather shares
with her the story of his encounters with
Gavran Gailé "the deathless man"—loosely
based on Koschei the deathless, a folktale
hero from Eastern Europe—a mysterious
figure who, like the doctors and caregivers,
is drawn to locales where violence is
prevalent and lifespans are short.  

The grandfather encounters the deathless
man several times over a period of decades.  
At the first meeting, Gailé has literally risen
from his coffin—
Twilight fans take note!—
and is shot two times in the head by a
mourner who doesn't want to see the
funeral canceled. But even these bullet
wounds are insufficient to lay low the
deathless man.  Natalia’s grandfather is
stunned by Gailé's unwillingness to receive
medical treatment, and even more amazed
when the risen corpse insists that he cannot
die, although he can predict when others are
about to meet their end.  

The story of the deathless man is presented
alongside a tale about the "tiger's wife"—
another dark and fantastic story from the
grandfather’s past.  During his childhood
years, a tiger escaped from a distant zoo
settles in the outskirts of town.  The
residents are fearful, and all their efforts to
kill or capture the tiger are unsuccessful.  
Yet a deaf-mute, married to the local
butcher, seems to have some special
relationship with the tiger, apparently
meeting up with the wild animal late at
night when the rest of the village is asleep.   
When the butcher disappears, and the wife
shows signs of pregnancy, dark tales start to
spread, filled with rumor, superstition and
accusation—the woman murdered her
husband….or had the tiger kill him….the
child in her belly is the tiger’s…or the
devil's…or perhaps both.

The grandfather is drawn both to the
woman, and to the tiger.  His prized
possession is a copy of Kipling’s
The Jungle
, and the arrival of the tiger in the
village seems like a story out of the book
come true—again Obreht blurs the line
between fantastic fiction and reality.   When
a famous hunter comes to the village,
hoping to kill the tiger, the boy is frantic.  He
wants to intervene, and save both the tiger
and the "tiger’s wife," but is uncertain how
he can halt the inevitable tragedy he sees
looming in the near future.

Obreht presents these tales from the past
against the context of Natalia's activities in
the aftermath of her grandfather’s death.  
She is treating orphans housed at a
monastery when she hears the news, and is
determined to make the trek to the place of
his death and retrieve his personal effects.  
In the course of this journey, she becomes
convinced that her grandfather, in his final
days, had been seeking out the deathless
man.   As part of her attempt to find both
solace and closure, she too sets out in search
of Gavran Gailé.

The Tiger's Wife is fanciful and heartrending
by turns, and it reminds me of many of the
masterpieces of magical realism—such as
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight's
Children and The Tin Drum—in its striking
juxtaposition of dark chapters in actual
history books with the stuff of myths and
legends. I am especially impressed by
Obreht's ability to hold back at key
junctures, allowing her narrative to advance
by means of hints and silences rather than
through detail and exposition.  She shows
tremendous restraint for such a young
writer (she was only 25 when this novel was
published), and embraces a pleasing sort of
ambiguity, one that in the hands of a lesser
author would be mere vagueness.  At the
end of this book, you will be left with more
than a few unanswered questions, and even
the "facts" that have been presented with
reasonable clarity are susceptible to
reinterpretation or a symbolic reading.

But what is irreducible is the allure of the
magic and the power of the human
connection, which are both presented in
various forms and guises in
The Tiger's
.   This is an imaginative book that
expands our sense of the possible, but also a
thought-provoking work about different
levels of responsibility—of child to elder, of
doctor to patient, of people to animals, of
races and religions to each other.   This is a
novel of caring and compassion, but not in a
sentimental or stereotypical fashion, rather
in a way grounded on both myth and
history.   In short, Téa Obreht is a young
woman who has delivered a frighteningly
mature book.  The fact that much of it is
presented with overtones of a fairy tale or a
story for children only makes it all the more
The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
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