01/30/2012 09:55 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Death in The Tiger's Wife

I was at a Broadway show the night that the Iraq War started. I was in tenth grade, I had gone to see Wicked with my mother and I am embarrassed to tell you that I ended up sleeping through a large chunk of the second act. We left the theater and returned home through the garish majesty of Times Square, and somewhere along the way we learned of Bush's announcement, I don't remember how. My mother -- who grew up in Israel, where war was the norm and its absence an anomaly -- gritted her teeth and said, "Well, things are going to be different now."

But they weren't, at least not for me. My life continued, easy and sheltered as it had before, and war become little more than a political trope.

So when I read Natalia's description of the victims of the Balkan war as,

"... people whose suffering we had used to explain our struggles, frame our debates, and justify our small rebellions... "

And of the war itself as a,

"Conflict we didn't necessarily understand -- conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn't go anywhere, do anything, be anyone... ," (pgs 152-153)

It struck a chord.

Natalia became much more involved in her war than I did in mine, but I can identify -- as I imagine many from my generation can -- with her guilty feelings of being removed from battle, and her struggle to understand a war she hasn't experienced.

For me, this is what The Tiger's Wife is about -- the stories we tell ourselves to help us understand death, especially when it is pointless, and especially when it is far away.

In grieving over the passing of her grandfather, Natalia tells the two stories that defined his life: the story of the deathless man (Gavran Gaile) and that of the tiger's wife. The two are linked -- Gaile received the curse of endless life because he fell in love and revived Amana, the sister of the tiger's wife. Amana, the intended betrothed of Luka, instead ran off with the deathless man, leaving her deaf-mute sister to take her place and return with Luka to Natalia's grandfather's hometown, Galina.

The two stories can be read as episodes of magical realism that symbolize Natalia's grandfather's capacity for hope and wonder. But I think that they're more compelling when read as Natalia's attempt to forgive her grandfather for playing a role in the tableau of aimless killing that surrounded her childhood.

Her grandfather, we learn, was a good man who at the age of nine fatally shot a stranger in the face, and kept it a secret.

The telling of Darisa's death, in my opinion, is meant to bring the reader back to the reality of Natalia's situation. It is clear that she had a very strong bond with her grandfather, and it is clear that his passing is, for her, monumental. Although we are not given much detail about Natalia's other relatives, we know that Natalia's father is not present in her life and that the relationship she maintains with her mother and grandmother pale in comparison to the one she shared with her grandfather. And it is clear that she is unwilling to return home in time for his funeral -- because, I think, she is angry. Angry that he's gone without finishing his story, and that she had to bear the secret of his illness and that his illustrious life and career were likely a reaction to a terrible thing he once did.

If the magic of the tiger's wife provides justification for Darisa's killing, then the magic of the deathless man serves to redeem his killer. Natalia believes that her grandfather took his last steps in an effort to find Gavran Gaile, presumably to turn over his copy of The Jungle Book, which had been wagered in a bet against Gaile's ability to cheat death. The Jungle Book tied Natalia's grandfather to the tiger and his wife, and so also to Darisa's death. Because of this, Gaile's collection of this book becomes an act of forgiveness and redemption.

In believing that Gaile finally took the frayed copy from her grandfather, Natalia can believe that her grandfather was forgiven before he passed away -- even if she is not ready to forgive him herself.

The novel's final chapter, in which Natalia for a moment believes that the mora is real, that he is, in fact, the deathless man himself, shatters for us, too, the otherworldliness of Obreht's story. The mora reveals himself to be Barba Ivan, who has been playing the spirit in order to keep his son's grave clean for the sake of his still-grieving wife.

There's a mundane beauty to the scene. Barba Ivan's actions are so heartfelt and sad and human -- just like the remembering of the hapless blacksmith who accidentally killed himself as a courageous hero, and the casting of an abused deaf-mute as a tiger's temptress and the portrayal of a sick old man as one who, on his last journey, held a final meeting with death's nephew -- that they remind us that there is no mystical way to explain the things that hurt us. And more often than not, we can only find redemption in how we are seen by the people we love.