Set in an unnamed Balkan country after the Balkan War, this is the story of Natalia and her grandfather. She is a young doctor on a mission to take medicines to orphans across the newly established border when she receives a call from her grandmother telling her that her grandfather has died. He's died far from home, having claimed that he was traveling to see her, Natalia. The fact of his death does not surprise her as she knew he was ill but that he claimed to be coming to her is entirely new to her. Although she continues with her difficult mission trip, she cannot stop thinking about her grandfather, to whom she was close, her childhood with him, and the tales he told her.
As Natalia continues with her intended medicine delivery and administration, she retells the stories, the cultural mythologies told to her by her grandfather and which threaded through her childhood. As a young girl, she visited the zoo with her grandfather many, many times, always spending the most time with the tiger. As war is declared and times change, Natalia grows tired of her grandfather's predictable habits and pulls away from their outings but she internalizes his stories of the tiger's wife and of the deathless man. As an adult, thinking back on her younger self and her experiences with her grandfather, she remembers and tells these folktales, these magical stories that symbolize the fear of death in this area so recently haunted by the brutality and killing of war.
These fantastical stories her grandfather told wrap through the present day narrative but seem often, to be part of a different story entirely, not as well-integrated as I'd have liked. They threaten to overwhelm Natalia's story in places but they also take on an air of tediousness and I found myself hoping that we were almost through them at other times. The language of the novel is beautiful and well-written but it is ultimately flat and the over-arching feeling of the book as a whole is the gloomy, dark, and grim aftermath of a needless war. Ultimately I just wanted to turn the last page and even discussing it with my book club didn't give me a deeper appreciation of the book. I'm sure I've missed something here but darned if I can figure it out.