Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize for Fiction, receiving 30,000 pounds ($49,000) and a bronze statuette called “the Bessie” after overcoming competition from Emma Donoghue and four other novelists in the U.K. literary award for women.
At 25, the Serbian American is the youngest author to capture the award, the organizers said. She was honored during a ceremony tonight at London’s Royal Festival Hall for “The Tiger’s Wife,” a debut novel set in a war-torn Balkan country.
Wearing a purple dress as she accepted the award, Obreht looked stunned and delivered a long list of thank-yous. She later told us that she never expected to win.
“I’m incredibly superstitious, so I didn’t prepare a speech,” she said. “But a few moments before the announcements began I thought, ‘I can’t have nothing.’ So I just wrote down a few names I shouldn’t forget.”
“The Tiger’s Wife” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is narrated by a young physician named Natalia who learns, while delivering vaccines to an orphanage, that her beloved grandfather has died in mysterious circumstances.
Piecing together stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia is drawn into a web of fables, allegories and violent events borrowed from newspaper headlines. Along the way, Obreht “reminds us how easily we can slip into barbarity,” said the head of the judging panel, Bettany Hughes.
“Obreht’s powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable,” Hughes said in an e-mailed statement. “By skillfully 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.”
Obreht said that the next stop for her is Serbia, to see her grandmother, who doesn’t speak English and can’t read the novel -- yet. There are now plans to translate the book into Serbian and Croatian.
First awarded in 1996, the Orange Prize was founded to celebrate fiction by women worldwide. The bookies’ favorite to win this year’s prize was Donoghue’s “Room” (Picador), which tells the horrifying story of a college student abducted and held captive for years in a secure chamber, like Elisabeth Fritzl of Austria.
The other finalists for the prize were Aminatta Forna’s “The Memory of Love” (Bloomsbury); Emma Henderson’s “Grace Williams Says It Loud” (Sceptre); Nicole Krauss’s “Great House” (Viking); and Kathleen Winter’s “Annabel” (Cape).
Previous Orange Prize recipients have included Barbara Kingsolver for “The Lacuna,” Marilynne Robinson for “Home” and Rose Tremain for “The Road Home.”