The Short Version: In an unnamed war-torn Baltic country, a young doctor tries to discover what happened to her grandfather and why he turned up dead far away from home. Simultaneously, two other stories – important stories in her grandfather’s life – are gradually revealed: that of the tiger’s wife and that of the deathless man.
The Review: Getting named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 before ever publishing your first novel must put a hell of a lot of pressure on a person. Everyone else on that list, I’d at least heard of. This girl, however, was a complete unknown. So naturally, this novel had a lot of baggage coming in. It was bound to be a Major Literary Event no matter what – but what I didn’t expect was something so… well, to be honest, something so relatively ordinary.
Perhaps it’s because, with this book, I’m ending a spate of Tournament of Books reading – perhaps it’s because I read the last hundred pages after seeing the most emotionally moving play I’ve seen in a long time (Tribes, at the Barrow St through at least Labor Day. Go.) – perhaps it’s that this year has seen quite a number of Major Literary Events surrounding debut novelists. Actually, let’s look at that last one for a moment (it also relates to the first point, I suppose): The Art of Fielding, Swamplandia!, even Open City were debut novels that had a lot of buzz behind them, for various reasons. Karen Russell already had some short stories to her name, Chad Harbach is at n+1, and I didn’t know Teju Cole at all when I was first told to read his book, so he was arguably more of an unknown than Ms. Obreht. But I’d argue that all of those books are more successful than this one. Cole’s is more narratively and stylistically ambitious, Russell’s does the whole magical realism thing better (caveat to be noted in my review…), and Harbach’s book is just simply far more engaging.
I’m doing a lot of comparing and I suppose I should look at the novel on its own merits – but I need to make one more comparison and that is to Jonathan Safran Foer. This book reminded me in many ways of Everything Is Illuminated. A book that I really liked when I first read it and it has since slipped in my estimation as time has passed. The grandfather’s history, the Eastern European angle, the wunderkind author… there are a lot of similarities here. I do think that Ms. Obreht outstrips Mr. Foer’s debut – but I think she’s also falling prey to some of the things that, once you get past the wunderkind part, tripped up Foer too.
See, it’s all well and good to be able to spin a yarn – and that’s absolutely what happens here. This is an old-school yarn, full of that rich oral tradition and the feeling of being handed down from generation to generation. The deathless man is a terrific character and that part of the story alone was incredibly compelling. “I once knew a man who predicted the circumstances of his own death, right down to the number and the placement of the bullet that killed him” (Dr. Watson, the 2009 Sherlock Holmes) – there are things on this Earth that simply defy our understanding and what’s to say that a deathless man doesn’t exist? If he does, I guarantee he looks exactly like this. This is the stuff of legend, this story, and it’s a delight to see it still happening afresh in the 21st Century. It’s like my legend of the autumn king – these stories can still be created anew. But the book is not called The Deathless Man and so we’re banking on the story of the titular feline lady to be pretty awesome. Instead, it’s confusing and ultimately anti-climactic. There’s a lot of superstition behind it but in the end it’s just a not-all-that-convincing story about a deaf girl and the grandfather being a stupid crazy kid. It’s a true tale, one without the fiction, and I honestly don’t see how or why it mattered.
Perhaps I’m being naive – this is possible. I’m not always one to ‘get’ things, although I do a damn good job most of the time. But the only connection I really came to understand was the connection to The Jungle Book and thus the deathless man. The titular story was, honestly, a bit of a bore. So too, being really blunt, was the present tense story. This “doctor in a war torn ambiguous former Soviet country” thing didn’t really do anything for me. It’s very well written and Obreht has a hell of a voice (it’s a slightly sharper Patchett, in a way… something to watch) – but I found myself checking my watch as it went on. I just never got lost in the story in the way I expected to.
None of this is to say that this is a bad book – it is, in fact, quite good – but it’s just that my expectations were not met and as a result I did not have an entirely enjoyable experience.
Rating: 3 out of 5. All in all, there was something lacking here – and I think actually what was lacking was precision. This was quite a big book (I mean, it’s only 330ish pages) for so little plot. There are a handful of novellas here or a far shorter novel… and there are also the seeds of other things. I’m sure the deathless man will come back in further stories and I look forward to that. Obreht is a wonderful writer and I enjoyed her way with words and her simple, old-school way of telling a story and creating a myth. It’s just that in a season of excellent debut novels, this one was the only one to not live up to the hype.