I started reading this book with no preconception of what it was about. It came highly recommended from the publisher (which I don’t always take as gospel) and there was some buzz about the book on twitter. Add to the mix this quote from Colum McCann “Téa Obreht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years” and I was more than prepared to give the book a go. In fact I bumped up to the top of my ‘to read’ pile and read it ahead of books that are coming out sooner! And am so glad I did so.
The best way to describe this novel is that it is like a well of stories and you immediately fall into it on the first page. It is set in an unnamed Balkan country still recovering from the after effects of war and the new borders that have been drawn up. The fact that no specific country in the region is ever identified is a really clever device and adds a surreal effect to the stories that unfold. I was tempted to look up town names that are mentioned but I didn’t want to ruin any illusions and it is not important anyhow, it is all part of the magic of this book.
The central thread of the book is Natalia, a young doctor who has just learnt of her grandfather’s death, whom she was very close to. Even though her grandfather was ill his death comes as a shock to her and as she tries to reconcile the fact that he is gone she recalls the stories he used to tell her and the times in which he told it to her. The more these stories unfold and interconnect the more you are in wonder of what a fabulous writer, and more importantly storyteller, Téa is.
There is an element to the stories that some would describe as ‘magical realism’ but I think the book is just plain magical. It is about the power of story in culture and in memory. And there is always something magical about being in the hands of a remarkable storyteller. Believe all the hype and praise you hear about this book and this writer, it is not hyperbole. This is a truly magnificent book by an extraordinary writer.
Téa is going to be a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival in May this year and I am definitely going to go a hear her speak.
You can watch my video review here