The setting of The Tiger's Wife is the former Yugoslavia, torn apart by years of war and ethnic cleansing. Natalia is a young doctor, a pediatrician, who, with her lifelong friend and fellow doctor Zora, travels to a district village that she had never been to or heard of to inoculate and treat children. En route, she receives the devastating news that her beloved grandfather has died in another village she had never heard of. Her grandfather, also a doctor, had been the major influence in her life. He had set her on the course she was to pursue as her life's work, and he had filled her imagination with fantastic stories.
The stories that he told had a touch of the supernatural and the superstitious. They were stories strongly grounded in the folk tales and beliefs of villagers who, even in the late 20th century, lived lives isolated from the modern world, lives that were full of the beliefs and traditions of their ancestors. His stories included a tale about a deathless man, an immortal who came to collect the souls of the villages' dead. But his most unforgettable story was about his own village and what happened there as World War II was beginning. During the bombing by the Germans, a tiger escaped from the zoo and hid in the mountains. The tiger was befriended by a young deaf-mute woman who was the wife of the butcher who abused her horribly. When the butcher disappeared and soon after it became apparent that the woman was pregnant, the legend grew in the village that she had become the tiger's wife and was carrying his child. Natalia's grandfather was just a young child at the time and he befriended the woman and sought to protect the tiger.
Natalia at first believes that her grandfather's stories are just stories, but after his death, she begins to suspect that there is more to them. Especially when, while in the distant village taking care of the children at an orphanage, she comes face to face with the deathless man himself!
Obreht's tale makes extended use of the devices of magical realism. It is a beautifully written book that flirts with the paranormal in telling a straightforward story of the horrors of war and of personal loss. We never get to know really whose "side" Natalia was on in the ethnic wars. We do get to know that, whatever else might be true, she was always on the side of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen and that she treasured her tattered "Born to run" tee shirt. I can certainly relate to that.