Top book prize won by relative unknown 25-year-old
Téa Obreht, the little-known 25 year-old Serbian-American author, was the surprise winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction with her debut novel The Tiger's Wife.
At 25, Obreht is the youngest ever author to take the prize and her triumph was far from anticipated. She beat favourite Emma Donoghue, who also narrowly missed out on the Booker Prize.
With it, she follows in the footsteps of fellow Americans, Barbara Kingsolver who won the prize last year with The Lacuna and Marilynne Robinson who won in 2009 with Home.
Obreht’s tale, which was written on a creative writing course at Cornell University, is narrated by Natalia, a young doctor on a “goodwill mission” touring orphanages in the wake of the Balkan civil war.
When she hears news of her beloved grandfather’s death far from home and in mysterious circumstances, she recalls stories he told her as a child and becomes determined to find out why he died.
She is convinced that he had been searching for “the deathless man” a vagabond who was said to be immortal.
Natalia comes across a clue which leads her to learn about a tiger who escaped from a zoo in 1941 and came to live in Galina, her grandfather’s village, and a deaf, mute woman who became known as the “tiger’s wife”.
Obreht accepted the £30,000 prize from Bettany Hughes, the broadcaster and historian, at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
Hughes, the chair of the judging panel, described The Tiger's Wife as an “exceptional book” and Obreht as a “truly exciting new talent”.
She said: “Obreht's powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable.
“By skilfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.”
Donoghue’s seventh novel, Room, about a mother and child kidnapped and imprisoned together, was a firm favourite on the all-women shortlist having already been tipped for a dozen awards and honours, including the Man Booker Prize.
Yet despite being considered one of the standout books of the past year and having spent five months on the Amazon.co.uk bestseller list with 470 per cent more sales than its closest Orange Prize rival, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, it once again failed to woo the judges.
Hughes admitted that the panel had debated into the early hours and that there was not an immediate consensus.
“It was not unanimous,” she said. “But it was a very friendly vibe. I’m sure The Tiger’s Wife will be considered an interesting choice but we are not there to satisfy what the bookmakers are saying.
“The shortlist was so strong. They were all immensely vivid and all absolute runners.”
The shortlist consisted of two other debut novels, Grace Williams Says it Loud by London-based Emma Henderson and Annabel by Canadian author Kathleen Winter as well as Great House the third novel by Nicole Krauss.
Alex Clark, a literary critic, said it was always exciting when a debut novel won a major prize and described Obreht as a worthy winner.