The first-time novelist Téa Obreht's book The Tiger's Wife, a surreal, seductive meander through recent history in the Balkans, has turned the 25-year-old into the latest literary superstar after she was crowned the youngest winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction yesterday.
Obreht, who speaks English as a second language, was an outside choice for the award for women's writing, the most prestigious in fiction alongside the Man Booker. Pundits had named the Canadian author Emma Donoghue the prize's favourite for Room, her chilling account of a boy and mother imprisoned in a bedroom.
After her acceptance of the award, Obreht said: "I was stunned and I did not expect it and I did not prepare anything. I'm really still not processing it. It is a tremendous honour." She added she was glad her book was being translated into Serbo-Croatian so her grandmother could read it.
Judging chair, author and broadcaster Bettany Hughes said the decision to recognise Obreht with the £30,000 award was "brave", revealing that it was not a unanimous decision.
"There's something special about the book, as it changed the way the judges looked at the world, which is really quite extraordinary," she said. "The Balkans really is a territory which flashes past many people's lives very quickly but this book gives us an intimate understanding of the place."
Obreht's story is as extraordinary as her novel's. She lived in Belgrade until she was seven. Her family then moved to Cyprus, Cairo, and the US, and she began writing the novel, the story of a young doctor coping with her grandfather's death, after graduating from the University of Southern California.
Her agent, Seth Fishman, is only 30, while her editor, Random House's Noah Eaker, was only 26 when he acquired the work.
Obreht spent three years writing the work and is currently working on her second novel. While the follow-up will be keenly watched, the news of her win may not be accompanied by the usual scrum over film rights. "It's a terrific result, but it's a very difficult one to imagine as a film," said the literary agent Caroline Michel.