Soon after The Tiger's Wife appeared in 2011, some of the literary critics who reviewed Obreht's novel situated it in the genre of "magical realism.” This is a literary classification famously associated with authors such as Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, and especially Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While it is understandable that Obreht (or at least her advocates in the press) would want to position The Tiger's Wife as a work that continues a respected literary style, what exactly magical realism is--and whether The Tiger's Wife does in fact fit the genre--is somewhat more debatable.
Magical realism can be understood as a style of writing that combines elements that are extremely true to life (e.g. political events, social customs, psychologically credible reactions) with elements that are as far from the everyday as possible. These may include supernatural events, mythical characters, or departures from the everyday logic that is so meticulously observed elsewhere in a magical realism narrative. Franz Kafka's painstakingly detailed yet dreamlike works are widely regarded as magical realism prototypes. In Kafka's short novel The Metamorphosis, for instance, a traveling salesman is transformed into a monstrous insectoid creature (the "magic") but proceeds to reflect on mundane events and household conflicts (the "realism"). Such different registers of material and experience are presented side-by-side, as natural elements of the same narrative world. Eventually, magical realism gained worldwide popularity in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: the most famous of these, One Hundred Years of Solitude, considers the social, political, and economic functions of a single community while drawing on mysticism, cataclysms, and bizarre patterns of recurrence.
For its part, The Tiger's Wife aspires to realistic portrayals of warfare, medicine, and family bonds, but incorporates seemingly supernatural characters such as the Deathless Man and Darisa the Bear. Yet Obreht's novel may be a much purer work of realism than it might at first appear: after all, the "supernatural" content occurs in stories from the villagers of Galina (who may be overreacting) and from Natalia's grandfather (an otherwise rational man whose motives are at times hard to discern). Indeed, critics have taken very different sides in this matter of classification. By titling her review of The Tiger's Wife "Magical Realism Meets Big Cats,” NPR's Jessica Ferri made her position readily known. In contrast, Ron Charles argued in the Washington Post that The Tiger's Wife "never slips entirely into magical realism" and instead "bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch."