My mother read this a few months ago, and gave me the heads-up that Obreht is trying to cram everything she's got into one book. I definitely agree: I kept wanting to say, "Slow down, Téa; something tells me you're going to get another book contract, you don't have to say it all now."
Much of this was previously published in the New Yorker, and you can see it in the twenty-page character studies which would make perfect NewYorker fiction pieces and which Obreht's determined to include as backstory whether the character's relevance to this novel merits that much page space or not. I am fairly certain that Obreht had about twenty short pieces, some about village life, some about a girl's adolescence during war, and created a framework with which to cobble them together into a novel. I enjoy over-the-top village-grotesque backstories, so I didn't truly mind, but it meant that a) whenever a minor character was introduced I knew to get comfy and b) the blurbs about Obreht's mind-boggling plotting skills made me roll my eyes. You can see the places where the cobbling-together happened, and the parts about the war adolescence were frankly a little tiresome. The pacing isn't bad, but that's not the same thing.
The framework: a young doctor, in an unnamed Balkan country, is trying to investigate the circumstances of her grandfather's death, and remembers stories he told her from his childhood. One story describes a tiger who invaded his mountain village and was protected by a deaf-mute woman (the villagers called her, you guessed it, "the tiger's wife"). The narrator is unlikeable and the plot isn't the point; it's a showcase for Obreht's metaphor-heavy writing.
Sometimes the metaphors / similes don't work: I occasionally found myself wondering why no one, in her writing seminars, said as much (she's said she wrote most of this book while getting her MFA). Saying barnacles clung to the bottom of a rowboat "like something earned" doesn't actually make any sense. Did the barnacles earn their spot? Did the rowboat earn them? Do earned things actually cling? If it's the rowboat doing the clinging, why would it cling to (or earn in the first place) things which damage it? You see what I mean? The phrase "like something earned" is - well, can't you just hear a thousand undergrad poems ending with it? If it has nothing to offer but its own heaviness, in a context that just puzzles, it shouldn't be included in a published book. Encountering it threw me off my stride for several pages.
But then she can also whip out something like, "while the big cat lay, broad-backed and rumbling, red tongue peeling the cold out of his paws," which made me say out loud, "Ooooohh," and go into a total language swoon. Peeling the cold out of his paws. Love. It.
The comparisons to Everything is Illuminated are inevitable - Eastern European war aftermath, magical realism, ridiculously young author who is being fawned over by all NYC - and that comparison may be part of why I liked this book so much, because despite all its flaws it is better than EiI by a factor of about eighty. Take note, Safran Foer: this is how you do it.
This book made me excited not only because Obreht is wicked talented (as we say around here), but because I can see the places where she has ample room for improvement. She did cram all her stories into one novel, so it may be a while before we get another one, but I really, really hope she doesn't go the Safran Foer route and start writing stunt books because she doesn't feel she has any growing to do. This book is good. Her later stuff could be amazing.
(Be warned: bad things happen to animals in this book. Really bad things.)
Next up: The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl. Pearl frequently disappoints me with the execution of his ideas, but I'm always willing to give a historical potboiler a try.