Orange prize 2011 goes to Téa Obreht

Surprise victory for The Tiger's Wife makes Obreht the award's youngest ever winner

The winner of this year's Orange prize for fiction is Téa Obreht, a first time novelist and, at 25, the youngest author to take the award in its 16-year history.

Belgrade-born and New York-based, Obreht was given the £30,000 prize for women's writing at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Judges praised her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, as evidence of a "truly exciting" literary talent.

Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, chair of the judging panel, said the novel more than fulfilled the Orange prize criteria of being original, accessible and excellent. "It is a very brave book," she said. "We were looking for a book that had some kind of alchemy, that changed us as readers and changed the way we thought about the world and The Tiger's Wife certainly does that."

Obreht's publishers have had the manuscript, written while she was on Cornell University's creative writing course, since 2008.

Obreht said the award was a "tremendous honour" which would take a while to sink in. "I really did not expect to win and so when they called my name I had a very surreal moment of incredible happiness and just numb joy – I think later it will be followed by crying."

She said she started writing the novel when she was 22 and finished it aged 24. "To some degree I've always been the baby of everything because I skipped two grades when I was little – I'm used to the questions about age. I was in an emotionally difficult place with the death of my grandfather and I was asking a lot of questions and they resonated with readers, which is incredibly gratifying."

Last year her wunderkind status was cemented when she was the youngest member of New Yorker magazine's top 20 writers under 40. Her victory meant defeat for Emma Donoghue – bookies' favourite for the bestselling Room – and Nicole Krauss for Great House. Many had also fancied the chances of Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love.

Hughes said it had been a difficult decision – the final session lasted more than four hours – and was not unanimous. "It was an incredibly exhilarating and very positive meeting and although judges were arguing very passionately for particular books, without exception everyone was delighted The Tiger's Wife won." The other judges were publisher Liz Calder, novelist Tracy Chevalier, actor Helen Lederer and broadcaster Susanna Reid.

Obreht's book is set amid the horrors and aftermath of Balkan civil war, mixing magic, myth and folklore with intense, tough realism.

Hughes said the novel "opened the doors and allowed us into the houses of people who have lived in the Balkans and suffered generations of chronic conflict and it asked what do you do, as a society, to deal with that? One of the things you do, to deal with that level of suffering, is you tell stories. For a prize which is a celebration of fiction and literature, it seems good to be honouring a book that puts storytelling at its heart."

Obreht was born in what was Yugoslavia in 1985 and grew up in Belgrade until her family moved to Cyprus then Egypt after war broke out. When Obreht was 12 they emigrated to the US. This year's prize has seen difficult themes explored by the six shortlisted writers. Donoghue's Man Booker-shortlisted Room tells the Josef Fritzl style story of an imprisoned child and mother while Forna tackles Sierra Leone's civil war and Krauss weaves stories of loss and suffering. Kathleen Winter's Annabel is about a hermaphrodite child in Newfoundland and Emma Henderson's Grace Williams Says It Loud is about love and abuse in a home for disabled people.

Contributor

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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