Who will take the Booker?

Ian McEwan is in the running to become only the third author to win the Man Booker prize for a second time, having secured a place on the shortlist with On Chesil Beach. He is, however, likely to face stiff competition from the virtually unknown New Zealand-born author Lloyd Jones, whose novel Mister Pip was installed as the favourite for the £50 000 prize.

After the massacre of entries from long-established writers when the long list was announced, the shortlist of six, from which the winner of the most respected of all fiction awards will be chosen, offered fewer surprises. The judges omitted all four first-time novelists on the long list and the only high-profile casualty was AN Wilson’s fictional portrait of Hitler, Winnie and Wolf.

Instead, McEwan and Jones are joined by Nicola Barker — whose novel, Darkmans, a contemporary ghost story set in modern-day Ashford — is a critical and popular favourite. Also on the list are Anne Enright — whose fourth novel, The Gathering, tells the story of the 12strong Hegarty family — and Indra Sinha, whose Animal’s People draws a campaigning portrait of an Indian community blighted by an American chemical firm.

The final shortlisted book is Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is set against the backdrop of the political unrest that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. It has been described by Jonathan Ruppin, buyer at Foyles bookshop, as a “stunning novel and my choice to win”.

The judges’ chairperson, Howard Davies, said: “Selecting a shortlist this year from what was widely seen as an exciting long list was a tough challenge. We hope the choices we have made, after passionate and careful consideration, will attract wide interest.”

McEwan’s inclusion is likely to raise some eyebrows among the literary community because of the slightness of his book. At less than 200 pages it is felt by many to be a novella rather than a novel.

William Hill said Mister Pip was installed as a favourite because of the “unprecedented” amount of money being placed on the book; until until a month ago, it was a 20-1 outsider. The bookmaker was by no means alone in noting a groundswell of interest in Jones’s tale of a Pacific island, which grows enthralled with Dickens’s Great Expectations when it is isolated during wartime.

Amazon found that Mister Pip sustained the biggest percentage increase of all books on the Man Booker long list after it was announced. “It is a real achievement to grow sales in the way Mister Pip has,” said Amazon’s head buyer, Kes Nielsen.

Davies said it was “rubbish” to suggest that McEwan — who won in 1998 with Amsterdam — was a runaway certainty for the prize. “All five other authors are very close to him in the view of the judges.”

Rodney Troubridge, fiction head at booksellers Waterstone’s, said: “Even if he doesn’t pick up the prize in October, Ian McEwan can only be seen as the big winner in this year’s Booker.

“If he wins, then the already bestselling On Chesil Beach will do even better and his reputation as probably our greatest living — and relatively young — author will continue to grow. If he loses, whoever else on this shortlist of less established writers wins will be dubbed David against his Goliath and they will always be referred to as ‘the writer that beat Ian McEwan to the Booker’.

“That said, I do think that Ian McEwan is on unstoppable form.”

Ruppin, at booksellers Foyles, said: “Booksellers and buyers need not worry about the lack of household names because the list is full of the literary giants of the future.”

The other judges are poet Wendy Cope, Giles Foden, author, biographer and critic Ruth Scurr and actor Imogen Stubbs. The winner will be announced on October 16. — Â

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John Ezard
Guest Author
Sarah Crown
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