A Week in Books: the Man Booker has recovered its depth of vision

Early last year, in the tropical highlands of Sri Lanka, I sat in the shade of a bodhi tree in Kandy and enthused about a debut novel set in another beautiful - if bleaker - stretch of hill country.

Early last year, in the tropical highlands of Sri Lanka, I sat in the shade of a bodhi tree in Kandy and enthused about a debut novel set in another beautiful - if bleaker - stretch of hill country. My fellow judges for the Commonwealth Writers prize shared an admiration for Sarah Hall's Lakeland drama Haweswater, which went on to win both the regional and world-wide award for a best first book. This week, Hall's second novel, The Electric Michelangelo (now under discussion by The Independent's online book group), has propelled its ocean-crossing tattoo-artist of a hero all the way on to the 2004 Man Booker prize shortlist. Win or lose on 19 October, the 30-year-old Cumbrian writer has climbed far and fast.

Of course, it's gratifying to lay a prophetic bet on some high-performing outsider. Beyond petty vanity, however, there are sound reasons to applaud both Hall's presence among the Booker finalists, and all her competitors' as well: Achmat Dangor, Alan Hollinghurst, David Mitchell, Colm Tóibín and Gerard Woodward. Mitchell, Tóibín and Hollinghurst have looked destined for this shortlist ever since March or April: I can never remember a leading group emerging so early, and so firmly. Together, they and the three less heralded contenders send out a clear and - for me, at least - a welcome message. What this list suggests is that the Booker prize will no longer try to transform itself into the Turner prize.

For plenty of readers and critics, the past two winners ( Life of Pi and Vernon God Little) have brought a revitalising shift of style. The timbre of a classic "Booker novel" - history-heavy, formally inventive, and/or tradition-conscious - gave way to a quirkier tone of voice. Recent victors started to sound more like sax virtuosi than organ maestros, as they tootled and riffed through their informal, offbeat parables and monologues.

Perhaps the prize needed that dose of cool. Any more such whimsical winners, though, and the curse of conceptualism could well have taken hold. In their engaging ways, both Yann Martel and DBC Pierre spun ingenious variations on a single routine, a gimmick, a shtick. A contest that formerly lauded the Lucian Freuds of fiction had veered towards the Tracey Emins. If this tilt had continued, the 2004 long-list boasted a perfect candidate for Turner-style Booker glory: Nicola Barker's Clear, her achingly hip and street-smart rapid-response novel provoked by David Blaine's 44-day fast-in-a-box beside Tower Bridge.

But that trend - or rot? - has stopped. These judges have reined in fiction's high-gloss, high-concept one-trick ponies. The books on their list look not so much trad or retro as reassuringly expansive in language and form. Even favourite David Mitchell, now famed as a sort of poster-boy for postmodern playfulness, erects the multiple narratives of coercion and resistance in Cloud Atlas on solid humanistic foundations. Like Sarah Hall, Achmat Dangor in Bitter Fruit (set in post-apartheid South Africa) and Alan Hollinghurst in The Line of Beauty (set in Thatcher's Britain) inscribe private lives on to a wide public canvas. Gerard Woodward's I'll Go to Bed at Noon (with its tragi-comic 1970s family) and Colm Tóibín's The Master (with Henry James wrestling his inner and outer demons in the 1890s) both concoct a richly textured blend of period and personality.

In short, the Man Booker has recovered its third and fourth dimensions - its depth of vision, and its hinterland of history - in place of the bold but flat Big Ideas of recent years. Whichever book grabs the £50,000 cheque next month, it will not be another one-tune sermon or soliloquy strung out to novel length. Sometimes, in fiction, less isn't more. Sometimes, more is more.

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