Does Téa Obreht's Orange prize signal a return to fabulism?

The Tiger's Wife's use of folklore chimes with a number of other writers' recent work. Is there a trend in the making?

Clearly, I wasn't the only one caught on the hop by Téa Obreht's Orange prize win. With odds of 2/1, Emma Donoghue's novel, Room, was the galloping favourite to take the prize. The Tiger's Wife was given joint-lowest odds of 6/1, and the book notched up just 8% of the shortlist's sales through Amazon (Room took a thumping 69%).

But the judges went for it anyway – and reading it last night, I saw why. I loved Room, and would have been thrilled for Donoghue if she'd come away with the laurels. But The Tiger's Wife is vivid and limber; a picaresque romp through the fragments of former Yugoslavia. I had reservations over a couple of aspects – the occasional whiff of adjectival overexuberance; the (to my mind) slightly coy fictionalising of the Yugoslav wars (Tito becomes "the Marshall"; Belgrade is referred to as "the City"). But quibbles aside, I found it enchanting: the overarching narrative, in which Natalia attempts to unravel the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather against the bombed-out, beat-up, glancingly beautiful Balkan landscape, becomes a lattice into which Obreht slots episodes lifted from several centuries of baroque folklore. We hear the tale of the deathless man,who sends a village into a frenzy by sitting up in his coffin and politely requesting a cup of water; the bear-man, the butcher-musician, and of course the Tiger's Wife herself, a deaf-mute Muslim girl who falls in love with a tiger. All of which led me to wonder whether the novel's triumph over Donoghue's brand of hyper-realism (Room takes its inspiration from the true-life case of Josef Fritzl, and Donoghue used a home design website to make sure everything would fit in the 11x11ft shed in which it's set), might in fact be a marker for something else: the return of fabulism to our pages.

Fabulism forms the backbone of European literature, from the Brothers Grimm all the way through to Angela Carter. But although it has remained a consistently strong strand in post-colonial fiction, it seems to me we've seen less of it in Europe over the last two decades: realism has been the dominant discourse. The first inkling I got that a shift might be occurring was on a rare trip to the cinema last year to see the Coen brothers' meditation on Judaism, A Serious Man. The film opens with a brief vignette set in an unnamed eastern European shtetl, in which a peasant inadvertently invites a man who may or may not be a dybbuk into his house. The scene, qualitatively different from their usual work, reminded me forcefully of Isaac Bashevis Singer's eerie Yiddish fables – The Magician of Ljublin, The Golem. A couple of months later, I read Dan Rhodes's Little Hands Clapping, set in a cinerial European city and based loosely around the tale of the Pied Piper, and on the heels of that, picked up Amos Oz's Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest - the author's attempt to recapture the spirit of the fairytales his mother used to tell him, which he remembers as "veiled in a kind of mist, as though they did not begin at the beginning or end at the end, but emerged from the undergrowth … and then slunk back to the forest they had come from". Add Obreht's novel to the mix, and you have what looks suspiciously like the beginning of a trend.

Why should this be? The kneejerk explanation would probably proceed something along the lines of in a time of uncertainty blah-de-blah-blah, we're all harking back to the security of our youth, as symbolised, in literature, by the fairy stories we heard at our parents' knees. But such a rationalisation is manifestly wrongheaded: fairytales aren't comforting; far from it. Filled with death, desertion, darkness and ambiguous, compromised conclusions, they are, as Bruno Bettelheim points out in The Uses of Enchantment, intended to horrify; to force us to explore the tangled forest inside our heads. The fact that we're turning to them again in a time of etc etc won't mitigate the anxiety we're feeling. In fact, it's more likely to amplify it – which is a far more intriguing proposition.

Of course it could be that I'm seeing a pattern where there isn't one; that all that's happened is that I've read a run of these books together. Nor is it the case that no one was dabbling in fabulism before – think of Hilary Mantel's Catholic parable, Fludd, for example, or Rana Dasgupta's 2005 story cycle, Tokyo Cancelled – or even Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (although that was, perhaps, more a self-conscious aping of the European fabulist tradition than a genuine attempt to reprise it). But it does feel to me as if there's something in the air. Is anyone with me?


Sarah Crown

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Orange prize 2011 goes to Téa Obreht

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

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

08, Jun, 2011 @6:15 PM

Article image
Téa Obreht: 'I don't feel I've earned the Orange prize'

The author of The Tiger's Wife is, at 25, the youngest person ever to win the prestigious literary award. So why does she have such mixed feelings about the honour?

Kira Cochrane

10, Jun, 2011 @7:00 AM

Guardian Books podcast: Feminism in literature

How literature has engaged with the feminist movement, with Orange prize 2011 winner Téa Obreht, Granta editor John Freeman and writers Naomi Alderman and Ann Patchett

Sarah Crown

10, Jun, 2011 @2:48 PM

Article image
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

Justine Jordan

08, Jun, 2011 @6:15 PM

Article image
I'm an Orange prize convert – for all the wrong reasons
Jean Hannah Edelstein: Women writers are failing as much as ever to win the recognition they deserve, so they need the publicity the award brings

Jean Hannah Edelstein

16, Mar, 2011 @3:38 PM

Article image
Orange prize shortlist favours debut novelists
New writers dominate this year's list but a more seasoned author, Emma Donoghue, could well take the prize

Claire Armitstead

12, Apr, 2011 @6:30 PM

Article image
Orange prize shortlist shows women's writing in 'rude health'
Debut novelists predominate among six finalists tackling notably traumatic material

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

12, Apr, 2011 @9:05 AM

Article image
Orange prize 2011 tipped to go to Room
Emma Donoghue's novel is 2/1 favourite to take £30,000 award for women's writing

Alison Flood

08, Jun, 2011 @9:58 AM

Article image
Orange prize longlist tackles difficult subjects – and alligators
The 20 novels on the longlist for this year's Orange prize for fiction deal with challenging issues 'with incredible sensitivity', say judges

Mark Brown

16, Mar, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Ex-Sesame Street writer makes Orange prize shortlist with first novel
Kathleen Winter and Emma Donoghue among novelists who will compete for £30,000 prize in strong year for female writers

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

12, Apr, 2011 @5:10 PM