Did you hear the one about the amusing Booker Prize shortlist?

This year's contenders handle dark themes with a light touch

A Man Booker shortlist comprising stories that were inspired by the Austrian abductor-rapist, Josef Fritzl, 19th century slavery, an inquiry into Jewishness and a master-and-slave journey into America's prisons might sound like serious business.

But the verdict of this year's judges on the shortlist of six novels was that it was the most humorous in the 42-year history of the prize, despite the dark, disturbing subject matter.

Sir Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate and the chairman of the judges, said they had not "set out to create a gallery of funny books". He added that while the choices were not necessarily "laugh out loud" funny - perhaps with the exception of The Independent columnist Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question - they were fine examples of tragic-comedy.

"Jacobson's and Peter Carey's are funny books. Andrea Levy's The Long Song is a more surprisingly comical book and there is a lot of comedy about Tom McCarthy's novel as well," said Motion.

Ion Trewin, the literary director for the Man Booker prizes, felt the shortlist "was the funniest in the history of the prize," notwithstanding Emma Donoghue's Room , which takes its inspiration from the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter captive in the basement of his family home. It is now the bookmaker Ladbrokes' favourite to win the £50,000 prize next month.

For most readers, however, the biggest surprise in the list will be the notable absence of David Mitchell's fifth book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet , which was among the biggest sellers on the longlist, second only to Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap , which sold the most copies out of the 13 books to be longlisted in July and which faced charges of misogyny.

Motion said that while Mitchell, a twice Booker-nominated author, "is a writer I greatly admire... we did not like it [his book] enough."

Simon Burke, from Waterstones, expressed surprise over the absence. "The news that Mitchell has not made the shortlist will cause great wailing and gnashing of teeth across the bookworld," he said.

Jonathan Ruppin, from Foyles, added: "The omission of both Mitchell and Tsiolkas from the shortlist is a real shock... I imagine it took some wrangling amongst the judges to reduce one of the best longlists in years to six."

Motion spoke in glowing terms about those who did make the cut, likening the literary prowess of the Carey, to that of Charles Dickens.

Shortlist: Carey could be first to win prize three times

Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America

Olivier is a child of survivors of the French Revolution; Parrot is the son of an English printer who wanted to be an artist but ended up as a servant. They join for a picaresque journey to America. Carey won the Booker for Oscar and Lucinda (1988), and for True History of the Kelly Gang (2001).

Excerpt "I have no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was."

Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question

A study of Jewish identity featuring two middle-aged men Julian Treslove, a former radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a Jewish writer and television personality. Jacobson has been longlisted twice for the Booker for Kalooki Nights (2006) and Who's Sorry Now? (2002). He writes a weekly column for The Independent.

Excerpt "He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one..."

Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room

Features a young man's journey through Greece, India and Africa, where he meets a handsome stranger, a group of backpackers and a woman on the edge. Galgut's books include The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.

Excerpt "Even before her departure when he goes to meet her flight from Cape Town, he knows he's in trouble. He last saw her a month ago and she was in a bad way then."

Andrea Levy

The Long Song

The story of July, a slave girl born on a sugar plantation in the 19th century and selected by a white mistress to live with her as a lady's maid. Of her four previous novels, Small Island won the 2004 Orange Prize and was made into a BBC drama in 2009.

Excerpt "As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed."

Emma Donoghue

Room

Written from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a locked room in which both are kept captive until they forge an escape plan. The story was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case. Donoghue was born in Dublin in 1969 and her novels include Slammerkin, about an 18th-century prostitute. She lives in Canada.

Excerpt "Today I am five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra."

Tom McCarthy

C

The life of Serge Carrefax, who is transfixed by the technologies of the early 20th century. His world becomes darker after he is struck by personal loss in his adolescence. McCarthy has written two previous novels.

Excerpt "Dr Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Versoie House."

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering