Somewhere in the Balkans soon after the end of a recent war, two young doctors make their way across the new border in the middle of what was once a part of their own country. They are traveling to an orphanage on a mission of mercy to treat the young children there and to take a store of medicine. While waiting at the border check station, one of the women, Natalia, learns of the death of her beloved grandfather. She also learns the somewhat puzzling detail that he was not at home when he died. He was not even in his own country. Apparently he had been on his way to find Natalia. This beautiful story develops around Natalia and her grandfather, as Natalia seeks to understand how and why her grandfather died as he did.
As Natalia grieves for her grandfather, she remembers precious moments that she has spent with him. When she was a little girl they went regularly to the zoo together. Her grandfather particularly loved the tigers. That’s what he took her to see week after week. She recalls how he always carried a copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book in his pocket and was never without it.
As she got older and became a teenager, Natalia became less enamored of the little rituals that she and her grandfather had enjoyed. Her life turned to boys and music and all the countless distractions of that time of life. War came to her country, and she and her friends became cynical and restless. She drifted from her family as teenagers often do. But as Natalia searches for answers about her grandfather’s death, she remembers their rituals and what they meant to her. And she remembers the stories that she loved to hear him tell.
These fascinating stories are woven into the story and make up a major part of the novel. One (and the one I found most compelling) was the story of The Deathless Man, a man who was cursed with an inability to die. The grandfather had met this man several times during the course of his life, always in times of trouble. The other story was a tale of the village where her grandfather had lived as a boy. The town was stalked by a tiger that terrified the residents and was always considered a portent of evil. The only person who was not afraid of the tiger was a young deaf mute woman who was largely shunned by the villagers. They feared her for her strangeness. She, however, did not fear the tiger, and seemed to have some kind of bond with him. The people of the town called her the tiger’s wife.
This is a story of love and war and life and death. It is an interesting mix of realism, myth and magical realism. Even though Natalia is searching for clues about her grandfather’s death, it is not a mystery story, certainly not in any conventional sense. It has elements of allegory. The tiger seems to represent…Well, I’m sure you will want to draw that conclusion for yourself.