This debut novel by a twenty five year old is being heavily hyped right now. In judging the merit of this book, the challenge is to separate the book from the author. As the question: just how good would this be if nobody told you who wrote it?
Serbian-American Obreht chooses to explore her birthplace from two viewpoints. The narrator is a young woman, a physician, who lived through the Bosnian Wars as a teen. The other viewpoint is that of her grandfather, also a physician, whose life stretches through the era of communism and its ugly aftermath, and who has recently died mysteriously as the novel begins.
The novel explores the tragedies of Balkan history, sometimes in a matter of fact tone and with camera-like detail, sometimes with a sort of magic realism through the sub-stories of “The Deathless Man” and “the Tiger’s Wife”- weird, unreal bits from the life of the grandfather.
In general, this many faceted approach works pretty well for Obreht. In seeking to do for the Balkans what Khaled Hosseini did for Afghanistan, she touches on the timeless theme of the tragedy of war and its aftermath through the conceit of a young woman learning the final secrets of her grandfather’s life. Clearly the author has been able to weave the memories of her life in with the recollections of her older relatives to examine history from an artistic rather than journalistic context.
In the final analysis, Obreht is the real thing here- an excellent craftsman with something important to talk about. The sections of the book featuring the grandfather actually seem to have more power than those that feature the narrator, but that is perhaps fitting, as the death of Obreht’s real-life grandfather was the seed that grew into the book. This is not really a five star instant classic, but it is a solid four start novel by a genuine new talent. Obreht has done well in following the maxim “write about what you know.” Time will tell if she has more ideas to explore. It’s impossible to predict where she will go, but as a novelist she has the tools.