Last month, 25-year-old Téa Obreht
became the youngest author to win the Orange Prize for Fiction
--a British literary award presented annually for the best fiction by a woman author--for her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife
. In a way, the victory confirms many of the expectations that have built up around Obreht since last summer, when she was named to The New Yorker'
s "20 Under 40
" list of young American writers, then tapped again by the National Book Foundation for its yearly "5 Under 35
" tribute. But it's also a recognition of the wonderfulness of this book's vision of how imagination and magic still give our modern lives meaning.
The novel opens with Natalia, a young doctor in a Balkan country ripped apart by civil war. As she heads out on a humanitarian mission to an orphanage just across the border, she learns that her grandfather has died in another faraway village. As she struggles to understand why he would even undertake such a dangerous journey, Natalia recalls the tales that her grandfather told her about his encounters with "the deathless man," a wanderer cursed with immortality, and discovers another story from his childhood, when a half-starved tiger escaped from a city zoo, found its way to the remote village where he lived, and brought comfort to an abused, deaf-mute woman.
Although Natalia's life is nothing like her own, Obreht, who was born in the former republic of Yugoslavia, acknowledges that her own grandfather's death motivated her to write the novel. "I had never attempted to write anything about my homeland or anything related to that at all until after he died," she said in an interview with The Rumpus
. "Where I come from, people are extremely superstitious, and that infuses everyday life... There's this wealth of myth, and wealth of folklore, and these are all things that people live with every day, and I was very into those stories when I was young. And I'm still into those stories now."
Taking inspiration from those stories, and adding her own dramatic visions of how we cope with the havoc wreaked by war, Téa Obreht has begun her writing career with a Character Approved fanfare.
[Image: Beowulf Sheehan]