'The Tiger's Wife': Cancer, War and Booze

In a novel set in an unnamed, war-ravaged Balkan country where the souls of the dead linger on earth for 40 days to "rummage through drawers and peer inside cupboards," there's going to be much that's strange, exotic and foreign. That's half the beauty of a book like The Tiger's Wife; but there's also much that, for me, resonates on a personal level.

I tried not to let the descriptions in the book of the grandfather's cancer-ravaged body remind me of anything, but they did: both my parents died of cancer, and I know only too well what a "graying face" with skin loosening around the bones looks like. I'm hoping the book doesn't go into too much detail further on, or I could end up bawling like I did over Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (that classic of the cancer canon).

There are other odd moments, too, when my memories seep into and then distract me from the words on the page. When the narrator briefly mentions that her country, on the verge of war, was indulging in "the kind of celebration that happens when people, without acknowledging it, stand together on the brink of disaster"--I couldn't help but think of the blackout of 2003 that hit New York, where I was living at the time. We certainly weren't on the brink of war that night, but for the first few paranoid moments of the power cut, we thought the terrorists might be back. The bars were full that night, we all got tipsy, and the mood, like that of Obreht's scene, was simultaneously grim and celebratory.

Talking of booze, I've never heard of rakija before reading The Tiger's Wife. All the men in the novel seem to be drinking it continually (it even gets wiped on the brow of that kid with tuberculosis). A quick search on the Internet revealed that rakija is something I probably shouldn't try, as it's apparently incredibly potent and sometimes gets manufactured incorrectly and kills people. It's hard to find in the U.S., but it can definitely be found at one liquor store in Astoria, Queens, according to this delightful discussion thread on Chowhound. It advises a trip to the store only "If the psychological distance isn't too far" for the Manhattanite searching for the rakija.

I called that liquor store, and the woman who answered the phone said that she was all out of rakija until next week. And, unless they can ship it out to me in Los Angeles, I guess I'll have to search elsewhere for that omnipresent ingredient of any serious book club: booze.