This novel, or at least half of it, could almost be described as Balkan magical realism. The main characters are Natalia, a young doctor, and her grandfather, also a doctor, who has recently died under somewhat questionable circumstances. That makes it sound like a mystery, which it is in some ways, but it’s much more than that. Natalia and a fellow doctor are traveling in war-torn areas, vaccinating children and distributing medicine to rural clinics. She plans to collect her grandfather’s belongings on the same trip. There’s a strong undercurrent of danger in this trip: two women doctors traveling alone in a politically and militarily unstable zone, where power shifts constantly. They stay at a farmhouse, where nearby a group of peasants, all of them sick with something that sounds a lot like tuberculosis, are digging in a vineyard. At first I assumed they were migrant laborers, but it turns out they’re trying to find the bones of a relative buried there, to remove the family curse that they believe has made them all ill. This is just one thread of a complicated story. In flashbacks to Natalia’s childhood, she recalls her trips to the zoo with her grandfather, and his treasured copy of The Jungle Book, which he shares with her. The story also jumps back further, to her grandfather’s childhood, and his friendship with an abused deaf mute womanknown as the Tiger’s wife.
The story is full of mythic characters: a deathless man, shot twice in the back of the head, who turns up at crucial times in the story; a hunter called Darisa the Bear who goes after the tiger; an apothecary who tends to the villagers but has a past unknown to any of them.
Here’s a video from Politics & Prose bookstore, with staff discussing and recommending the book:
author photo: Beowulf Sheehan