Orange winner's novel could heal the wounds of war-torn Serbia
To win the Orange Prize for Fiction with a debut novel is an achievement in itself. But Tea Obreht, who accepted the award for The Tiger's Wife at the Royal Festival Hall in London last night, has proved more than a master of fiction.
She has, by accident, produced a book that could heal the international image of her birth-country Serbia.
When I met the 25-year-old American at the Hay Festival, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic had just been arrested - another turning point in the bloody history of the Balkans.
Obreht said: "Every time you check off something bad that happens, despite the fact that everybody in some way was a villain, everybody in some way was a victim, we are taking a step forward."
The Tiger's Wife is more than fiction. It is about burying the dead.
Set in an unspecified Balkan country, the novel follows the life of an old doctor and a magical realist character, the deathless man - but its real subject is the story of how broken Yugoslavia deals with the violence that ravaged it over the last 70 years.
Obreht's own roots sprawl across the Balkans. Her grandfather Stefan, on whom the protagonist is based, was a Slovene who worked his way out of poverty to become the leading aviation engineer in Yugoslavia, married a Bosnian Muslim Zahida and settled in Belgrade. In 1991, when Obreht was six, fighting broke out between Serbia and Croatia - the first round of hostilities in the breakdown of Yugoslavia.
She said: "My family often did not want to involve their kids in an understanding of what the conflict was going to be about - there was still a hope that it wouldn't break out.
"But it had already bled into the consciousness of a lot of kids, so there began to be a lot of 'What kind of name is your name?' at school."
Her given surname is Bajraktarevic, after her absent Bosnian Muslim father. Surnames meant a lot in the Balkans. Her grandfather's father had the German name Obreht and for this, during the Second World War, he was shot.
Worried that a family of such lineage could be shattered in the new war, Stefan moved them to Cairo in 1992, but even there, through her grandmother Zahida, Obreht still felt the violence in Bosnia. She said: "It hit her the hardest of everybody - she was the one with the big family. News filtered in of cousins who died and she had a difficult time."
Her grandparents returned to Belgrade in 1997, while she and her mother moved to a new life in the US. Her grandfather died in 2006 and on his deathbed he asked her to write under his name Obreht.
And her biggest prize may be to come - at her reception on her return to Serbia at the end of this week.
Evening Standard, 09 June 2011.