They say the eye of the hurricane is the quietest, calmest place. But the eye of the tiger? Survivor say it's the thrill of the fight. And the fight is what ravaged the country in the Balkans which Téa Obreht is writing about. She is the youngest author to ever receive the Orange Prize For Fiction and her way of telling the story is quite extraordinary, especially for a 25-year old. But what is truly lacking is the story itself.
I'm a firm believer in the power of stories as well as storytelling. One cannot exist well without the other. So if the story is good but is told sloppily, it loses the magic. But if the storytelling is magnificent and the fabula is lacking, the whole amazingness of words loses meaning. That's what I missed in this beautifully written novel.
Because that's what it is. Beautifully written. But I could have fallen asleep during it. Which is never a good sign. When I realized that I am pushing it away and postponing time at which I'd return to the it, I knew something was wrong. I wanted so badly to love this book. I was thrilled with Ms Obreht success, her personal story and choice of topic. Maybe that's why the execution of this novel was so much more disappointing to me.
So what's it really about? It's about Natalia, a young doctor, who arrives to an unnamed Balkan country on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. Even she is holding back a secret. The death of her beloved grandfather who recently died in inexplicable circumstances. As she is uncovering the layers of the country's many secrets as well as her grandfather's, I can't really say that much happens. Every person in this book really isn't that important and yet they all receive many descriptions, adjectives and metaphorical expressions. I love magic realism but if it's a river, it needs story in the shape of a boat in which we can float to follow the river. The story is quite simply not interesting.
She gave tons and tons of importance to the descriptions of inanimate objects and events in her life but she got so caught up in the description of them, the description of the way the grass smelled or the old book looked that she forgot to input the emotional connections. I wanted to care for Natalia and I wanted to like the grandfather but I just didn't care. I wanted to understand why Zóra and Natalia were friends in the first place when there was clearly no connection between them (except for what she has told us about it) and when Natalia didn't even tell her that her grandfather passed away. Okay, maybe she was the quiet type, didn't want to share. I can believe that. But why was there no emotion? Nowhere? I rack my brain but can't find the answer.
I also didn't understand the need to keep the country and its capital a secret and yet name other little towns and villages. It is well known to any movie aficionado that in Kusturica's Underground there is the raid of Belgrade in which the ZOO suffers as well and wild animals run around. Did the author not want to have Serbs upset with her for exploring her roots this way? Was she afraid that it would seem like voyeurism since she left her hometown of Belgrade in 1992 when the wars started and practically never returned? Of course now everyone wants a piece of her and her heritage, everyone is proud of her. Perhaps the fact that I know the area quite well makes me a bit more baffled as to why all the secrecy. Especially since it's inconsistent.
Natalia is a person with the story but no depth, no explanation, no character, no flaws, no emotion. She keeps revisiting memories and never truly sharing how they make her feel.
If this was a blog on only the perfection of (the art of) writing, I'd give her thumbs up. Wrapping up sentences in adjectives, big words and long explanations and tying them with a beautiful magical bow is her strong trait, no doubt. Many times I went through a whole passage thinking what beautiful language I am reading! Now if only ten pages later I knew what I had read or maybe found out something important for the story. I will be watching her because she has great potential but I truly hope this won't be her best work.