The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (2011)
Summary from Wikipedia:
The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country, in the present and half a century ago, and features a young doctor's relationship with her grandfather and the stories he tells her, primarily about the 'deathless man' who meets him several times in different places and never changes, and a deaf-mute girl from his childhood village who befriends a tiger that has escaped from a zoo. It was largely written while she was at Cornell, and excerpted in The New Yorker in June 2009. Asked to summarize it by a university journalist, Obreht replied, "It’s a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans."
One of the things that ran through my mind while I was listening to this book was how difficult it is to dig into the past and reveal “the truth”. All that remains (if even that) is the stories of what happened; and stories have their own life. When we are not sure about the details, we fill in the gaps with guesses and traditions and our own imagination. In this story, the curiosity of a modern, well-educated young woman with a scientific approach to life, clashes with old legends, superstitions and traditions, as she is confronted with both personal loss (the death of her grandfather) and the misery that she meets in her work as a doctor. While she is trying to solve the problems of here and now, in her mind she also keeps returning to the stories her grandfather used to tell her.
Kipling’s The Jungle Book plays a role in the plot – a book the grandfather used to carry with him at all times.
For so young an author I think this novel shows extraordinary depth and insight. In some respects, her style of writing reminds me a bit of Paolo Coelho; there is that element of some things going beyond what we can hope to ever fully explain. At the same time there is something very solid and physical about Téa Obreht’s storytelling. I hope she’ll go on to write more novels with the same interesting mix of intensity and distance.