Wednesday, 8 June 2011
“The Tiger’s Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht's powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully 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.”
That’s how historian Bettany Hughes, the chair of the 2011 Orange Prize judges, summed up her admiration for this year’s winner - Téa Obreht.
At 25, Obreht is not only the youngest-ever author to win the Orange Prize but she’s done it with her first novel. And if that isn’t enough, she only learned to speak and read English at the age of seven, when she moved from the former Yugoslavia, where she was born, to Egypt. She now lives in New York.
Deciding on the 2011 winner was clearly a tough call. As she announced the award at London’s Royal Festival Hall tonight (June 8), Bettany Hughes admitted that the judging panel had carried on debating the matter till the early hours of the morning.
I can completely understand their dilemma. When I reviewed the Orange shortlist for a newspaper piece last week I was hard-pressed to decide which of the six shortlisted novels I admired the most.
The Orange Prize was launched in 1996 to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing around the world – and the six contenders certainly fulfilled those criteria. They all tackled gritty subjects - storylines ranged from abuse in care to the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone – but managed to be eminently readable at the same time.
The bookies’ favourite was Room, by Irish writer Emma Donoghue. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and in the run-up to the Orange Prize ceremony sold far more copies than the other contenders. But some readers. me included, found this heartrending story, loosely based on the horrific case of the Fritzl family, too much to bear.
The other books on the shortlist were Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. Remarkably, just like Obreht, Henderson and Winter are debut novelists.
The novel that stood out for me on this outstanding list, though, was the wonderfully-titled Grace Williams Says it Loud. The story of Grace, a severely physically and mentally disabled girl sent to live in a mental institute at the age of 11, Henderson’s book is brave, exuberant and utterly original.
But in the end the judges chose Téa Obreht, and there's no doubt that she is a fantastic new literary talent. Her book, set in the aftermath of the Balkan War, follows young doctor Natalia as she strives to unlock the mystery of her beloved grandfather’s death in mysterious circumstances far away from home and is a magical, distinctive tale. Do read it - and all the others too.