Booker shortlist signals 'turning of literary tide'

Nearly all the favourites to win this year's £50,000 Man Booker Prize have fallen at the penultimate fence after the judges chose one of the youngest and most eclectic shortlists in years.

In a move that has saved bookmakers a fortune, writers including two-time Booker winner Peter Carey, the highly-acclaimed Andrew O'Hagan and David Mitchell, who was the hottest favourite in the entire history of the prize the last time he was in the running, were all excluded from the final list of six.

Sarah Waters with The Night Watch remains the biggest name in contention and was immediately installed as favourite to take the prestigious prize at the ceremony on 10 October. She has been shortlisted before, for Fingersmith in 2002.

Hermione Lee, the chair of a judging panel which includes Fiona Shaw, the actress, and Anthony Quinn, a critic with The Independent, said Carey, O'Hagan and Mitchell would all survive and thrive without the Booker. "I feel they're such talented and exceptional writers that they don't need us," she said.

Instead, Ms Lee, who was a judge when Salman Rushdie was catapulted to fame with the victory of Midnight's Children in 1981, presented a list which will take many readers by surprise.

The shortlist includes one debut novelist, Hisham Matar with In the Country of Men, Kate Grenville, a former Orange Prize-winner, and Kiran Desai, who is the daughter of the author Anita Desai , herself a three-times Booker nominee.

Canongate, the independent Scottish publisher which triumphed in 2002 with The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, has two titles on the list, Grenville's The Secret River and Carry Me Down by M.J.Hyland.

The final contender is Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn, a 46-year-old author who turned to writing after surviving abuse by his father and heroin addiction.

Several subjects recurred, including the world as viewed through the eyes of children, life in exile and anti-Americanism.

Ms Lee said: "We've come across a lot of anti-Americanism of various kinds in the writing. [Mother's Milk] was probably the most outrageous satire of American culture you can imagine."

The selection surprised commentators. John Sutherland, last year's chairman and author of How to Read a Novel, said it was a "bizarre" list that might signal a changing of the literary guard. "If you compare it with last year, the average age is five or 10 years younger. What we may be seeing is a turning of the tide, the older generation giving way to the new."

Kate Gunning of Foyles said the contest would be one of the most fascinating in years. "It's a huge bonus to have less well known authors on the shortlist."

Rodney Troubridge of Waterstone's said they were surprised and disappointed at the omission of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green but would be delighted if this was to be Sarah Waters' year instead. "We are particularly excited to see Hisham Matar on the list for his brilliant first novel - a child's eye view of a country without liberty."

Matar himself seemed astonished. "I'm almost numb with joy. It's quite marvellous. Writing happens in silence. When something happens like this, it's delightful. It's almost a bodily pleasure."

The contenders

'The Inheritance of Loss' by Kiran Desai (Hamish Hamilton)

The life of an embittered old judge in the north-eastern Himalayas is turned upside down by the arrival of his orphaned grand-daughter Sai. Their stories are woven together with the parallel narrative of the son of the judge's cook, who lives in the shadowy world of illegal immigrants in New York.

Desai, 35, was born in India, the daughter of the author Anita Desai who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. Educated in India, England and the United States, she is a student on Columbia University's creative writing course.

William Hill odds 7/1

Ladbrokes odds 4/1

'The Secret River' by Kate Grenville (Canongate)

Thames waterman William Thornhill has a tough, but bearable, life until he makes a mistake for which he is made to pay dearly. He is sentenced to be transported to the colony of New South Wales, Australia, where he sets up home on 100 acres of land but is shocked to find aboriginal people are already living on part of it.

Kate Grenville, 55, was born in Sydney, Australia, and has worked as a film editor, journalist, typist and teacher. Her novels include The Idea of Perfection, which won the 2001 Orange Prize for fiction.

William Hill odds 4/1

Ladbrokes odds 11/2

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland (Canongate)

John Egan, a young boy, has the unusual talent of knowing when people are lying. He hopes that one day this gift will bring him fame, but in the meantime is forced to deal with the destructive undercurrents of his family. However, his obsession with uncovering the truth becomes a violent and frightening fixation.

MJ Hyland was born in London to Irish parents, spent her early childhood in Dublin before the family moved to Australia. After training and working as a lawyer, her first novel was published in 2004. She lives and works in Manchester.

William Hill odds 5/1

Ladbrokes odds 9/1

'In the Country of Men' by Hisham Matar (Viking)

A young boy growing up in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in 1979 witnesses a terrifying and bewildering world of secrets and lies. A mysterious man sits outside his house all day and asks questions, while his father has apparently disappeared.

This is the first novel by Hisham Matar, 35, who was born in New York, but spent his childhood in Libya and Egypt before moving to Britain in 1986 where he became an apprentice architect. Matar is the son of a Libyan dissident who has not been heard of since he was imprisoned in Tripoli in 1990.

William Hill odds 6/1

Ladbrokes odds 4/1

'Mother's Milk' by Edward St Aubyn (Picador)

The funny, if degenerate, exploits of Patrick Melrose, a man struggling to measure up to adulthood, and his aristocratic family. A follow-up to St Aubyn's previous trilogy about the once-illustrious Melrose family, although can be read alone.

St Aubyn was born in 1960 in a part of Cornwall where his family had lived since the Norman Conquest. He was raped by his father as a child and further abused, became a heroin addict at 16 and continued the habit through Oxford University. At 28 he considered suicide but turned to therapy instead, talked through his life and used the material to become a writer.

William Hill odds 3/1

Ladbrokes odds 7/1

'The Night Watch' by Sarah Waters (Virago)

The story of four Londoners - three women and a young man - and their interweaving stories during the Second World War. Kate is an ambulance driver, while Helen harbours a painful secret and Viv, a glamour girl, is stubbornly loyal to her brother Duncan, an apparent innocent.

Sarah Waters, 40, was born in Pembrokeshire and went to Cambridge University. Her first book, Tipping the Velvet, the Victorian lesbian novel, was adapted into a three-part television serial, its successor, Fingersmith, was shortlisted for the Booker and Orange prizes. It was also serialised on TV. Waters lives in London.

William Hill odds 2/1 Favourite

Ladbrokes odds 6/4 Favourite

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