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LONDON (Reuters) - Belgrade-born author Tea Obreht was the surprise winner on Wednesday of Britain's Orange Prize for Fiction with her debut novel "The Tiger's Wife," a mystical, magical examination of the recent conflicts in the Balkans.
At 25, Obreht is the youngest author to scoop the award, which honors female writers from around the world and is now in its 16th year.
Despite her high profile in the United States, where she has lived since she was 12 and is seen as an up-and-coming literary star, Obreht was among British bookmakers' outsiders to win the Orange Prize for Fiction with odds of 6/1.
The favorite had been Emma Donoghue for "Room" followed by Aminatta Forna ("The Memory Of Love"). Also on the shortlist were Emma Henderson ("Grace Williams Says It Loud"), Nicole Krauss ("Great House") and Kathleen Winter ("Annabel").
"'The Tiger's Wife' is an exceptional book and Tea Obreht is a truly exciting new talent," said Bettany Hughes, broadcaster, historian and author who chaired the Orange Prize judges.
"Obreht's powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skillfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms."
She added: "The book reminds us how easily we can slip into barbarity, but also of the breadth and depth of human love."
Obreht's family left Belgrade at the beginning of the 1990s as war broke out in the region, and spent time in Cyprus and Egypt before moving to the United States.
The Tiger's Wife, set in a Balkan country ravaged by conflict, follows a young doctor as she tries to unravel the mysterious death of her grandfather in a remote village.
Critics praised its blend of contemporary realism and village legend, with Ron Charles of the Washington Post highlighting its "refreshingly un-American" treatment of the subject of death.
"The Balkans' legacy of living amid so much carnage and desecration has produced what Obreht calls 'the delusion of normalcy, but never peace'," he wrote.
"That sounds grim and depressing, but conveyed in storytelling this enchanting, it's the life you remember."
Others were less convinced by the book, published by Random House in the United States.
"After meeting innumerable exotic characters, it dawned on me that the back-stories stand in for a story, and style stands in for emotion," wrote Kapka Kassabova in Britain's Guardian newspaper in a mixed review.
The Orange Prize is a perennial topic of debate in London literary circles, where authors are divided between those who view it as sexist and those who argue that women need a prize of their own in a male-dominated world of publishing.
Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt was one recent high-profile critic of the award, while "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling came to its defense, saying it did "a useful job."
Obreht receives a check for 30,000 pounds ($50,000) and a limited edition bronze statue known as "the Bessie."
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato