Three debuts make the Orange Prize shortlist

Three first-time novelists tackling macabre subjects – the aftermath of conflict in the Balkans, a love affair in a mental institution, and the story of a hermaphrodite baby called Wayne – feature in this year's shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, Emma Henderson's Grace Williams Says It Loud, and Kathleen Winter's Annabel made the shortlist announced yesterday for the £30,000 prize for women writers.

They join Emma Donoghue's Room – the tale of a five-year-old boy held in captivity – The Memory of Love – a Sierra Leone love story by Aminatta Forna – and the sprawling cross-continental narrative of Great House by Nicole Krauss.

"It's a very interesting line-up," said Donoghue, the bookies' favourite. "It's still important to be up for awards like this. I've bought several books including Valerie Martin's Property, which won the prize in 2003, because of their association with it. The list of previous winners, including Lionel Shriver and Zadie Smith, is very strong; that's what gives it the glamour."

A surprise omission from the shortlist is Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, a postmodern exploration of the interplay between time and music, which beat Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to win the US National Books Critics Circle fiction prize last month.

Obreht, 25, is the youngest on the shortlist. She was discovered by the New York literary agent Seth Fishman, himself only 30, and was edited by Random House's Noah Eaker, 26. Excerpts were published in The New Yorker's 20 under 40 issue.

"Our judging meeting fizzed for many hours with conversations about the originality, excellence and readability of the books in front of us, credit to the calibre of submissions this year," said judges' chair Bettany Hughes.

The longlist, when it appeared in March, featured the largest number of debuts in 11 years. The prize was set up in 1996 to promote fiction by women around the world. Lionel Shriver won for We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2005, Valerie Martin for Property in 2003, and Zadie Smith for On Beauty in 2006.

Donoghue said her next book would tackle a murder in 1870s San Francisco. "It's nice to be doing something completely different to Room; some writers get caught up in weird simulacrum of their previous novel and it's good to be plunging into a completely different world," she said.

Six of the best: Judges' selection

Annabel, Kathleen Winter

A mysterious baby, Wayne, is born in 1960s Labrador, Canada. Wayne is neither boy nor girl. The baby's parents raise it as a boy, but it is constantly haunted by 'feminine parts of its nature'.

Grace Williams Says it Loud, Emma Henderson

Henderson, a graduate of Yale and Oxford universities, taught English in London comprehensives and had a family before writing her first novel. It is a love story about an epileptic, Daniel, and Grace, whom he meets in a mental home.

Great House, Nicole Krauss

This narrative takes in three sub-plots: the arrest of a Chilean poet, a man caring for his dying wife in London, and a Jerusalem-based antiques dealer. Krauss's previous works include the international bestseller, 2005's The History of Love.

Room, Emma Donoghue

The story of five-year-old Jack, a boy living in a locked room with his mother. Donoghue acknowledges the book was inspired by the story of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years. It was also shortlisted for last year's Man Booker prize.

The Memory of Love, Aminatta Forna

Adrian Lockheart, a psychologist, leaves England to live in Sierra Leone. He falls in love with a local surgeon and becomes embroiled in the life of one of her elderly patients. Forna was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and the UK.

The Tiger's Wife, Téa Obreht

This novel draws on the author's background growing up in the Balkans in the civil wars. It is a journey of discovery about a young doctor coming to terms with her grandfather's death. The author learned English by watching Disney films.