Not only is the newly announced winner of this year's Orange prize for fiction a first time novelist, she's also strikingly, surprisingly young – only 25 – making Téa Obreht the youngest ever author to be given the award in its 16-year history.
The Belgrade-born and New York-based Obreht was given what is the most prestigious prize for women's writing at a ceremony in London's Royal Festival Hall.
Something of an unexpected winner, judges praised her debut novel The Tiger's Wife as evidence of a "truly exciting" new literary talent.
The historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, who chaired 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. It is a very special book."
To have that effect is all the more remarkable, given Obreht's age. She is 25 now, but the publishers have had the manuscript, written while she was on Cornell University's creative writing course, since 2008. Last year her literary wunderkind status was cemented when she was the youngest member of New Yorker magazine's top 20 writers under 40.
Obreht's victory meant defeat for better established writers Emma Donoghue – the bookies' favourite for the best selling Room – and Nicole Krauss for Great House. Many had also fancied the chances of Aminatta Forna for her rich and engrossing The Memory of Love.
Hughes said it had been a difficult decision – the final Tuesday-night judging panel session lasted more than four hours – and it 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 that The Tiger's Wife won."
Obreht picked up £30,000 and follows in some imposing footsteps. The last two winners have been US novelists Barbara Kingsolver (for The Lacuna) and Marilynne Robinson (for Home) while others include Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver and Andrea Levy.
The other judges for this year's prize were publisher Liz Calder; novelist Tracy Chevalier; actor Helen Lederer and broadcaster Susanna Reid.
There are some who believe there's no need for a separate, specific prize for women novelists but not Hughes. "In a funny way it's a non-question," she said. "I know as a historian that around 3,500 years ago there was a genuine equality between men and women and we've pretty much being playing catch-up since then. There is still some way to go and the Orange prize does an immensely important job."
Full piece at The Guardian.
Obrecht was of course last month a guest at both the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival and then the Sydney Writers Festival. This past week she has been in London on promotional work including an evening session at the London Review Bookshop which was chaired by Claire Armistead, literary editor of the Guardian.
Warmest congratulations to this young and impressive author.
The Tiger’s Wife (NZ$36.99 RRP, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).