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?

Contributor

Sarah Crown

The GuardianTramp

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