Téa Obreht is an exuberant Orange prize winner

The Tiger's Wife weaves together a set of picaresque wartime fables in a dazzling first novel

Room, a novel narrated by a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life incarcerated with his abducted mother, looked like a very safe bet indeed for this year's Orange prize. It had a high concept, a passionate following, critical approval, and the strongest sales by far of any shortlist title. On Tuesday, the teenage judges who shadow the prize chose it as their favourite. But it's also a novel that divides readers, with some finding the subject matter, inspired by cases such as Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, in poor taste, and others unconvinced by the verbal facility of the child narrator.

If the judging panel was split along these lines, it makes sense that they turned to The Tiger's Wife. Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love is a delicately written saga of desire and betrayal in postwar Sierra Leone, but it already has a Commonwealth Writers' prize, while Nicole Krauss's Great House, a novel of writerly anxiety and family tensions, is finely wrought but airless. The other two debuts, surprise inclusions on the shortlist, are much quieter affairs.

The Tiger's Wife, by contrast, is exuberant. It taps into the resurgence of fabulism in fiction; set in a fictionalised Balkan country, it nestles a series of picaresque stories about war and conflict, superstition and spirits, magic and village life, within a tender narrative about a young woman's love for a grandfather who is as stubborn as she is. Obreht makes fine use of the Balkan traditions of oral storytelling and animal fable, but also writes brilliantly about the atmosphere of teenage licence in the buildup to the war of the 1990s. In the encounters between the heroine's doctor grandfather and a "deathless man" who claims to be immortal, rationalism runs up against mystery to comic and uncanny effect.

Where last year's award, to Barbara Kingsolver, was something of a lifetime achievement prize, Obreht is a dazzlingly talented first-time novelist who is still only in her mid-20s. If the different elements of her novel do not entirely gel – she admits that she wrote the parts that interested her most first, and had to weave them together later – these are youthful flaws in a writer whose yarn-spinning is a pleasure to behold.

Contributor

Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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