Thursday, November 08, 2012
Framing the novel is a story about a young woman (Natalia) and her grandfather, both doctors in the former Yugoslavia. Natalia is working on a project to vaccinate children in a remote village somewhere in the Balkans when she hears of her grandfather’s mysterious death. Compelled to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death, Natalia makes a journey, both physical and psychological, through everything she knows about her grandfather, including his tales of his youth during World War II, his young professional days in communist Yugoslavia, and his work during the beginning of the Bosnian war. These stories make up the heart of the novel and most of them share a border with fantasy. But this myth-making is central to Obreht’s Eastern European storytelling tradition; at one point (through the voice of one of her characters) she explains to us the role of myth in the history of the Balkans: “He learned, too, that when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning.” Grandfather’s myths include stories of a love affair between a tiger and a woman, a man who is half bear, and the exploits of the devil’s nephew, also known as “the deathless man.”
In the hands of a less skilled writer, this book could be a muddle. Or, as sometimes happens, the internal stories could be more fully realized than the framing ones -- I’m thinking now of People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, which suffered from this effect. But Obreht is better than that. Both Natalia’s story and those told by her grandfather are equally compelling. I loved all of it.
(Book 29, 2012)