Mitchell tipped for Booker as first-timers fail to make grade

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Three literary heavyweights dominated the shortlist for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize yesterday, with all except one of the women and one of the first-time novelists on the long list failing to make the grade.

Three literary heavyweights dominated the shortlist for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize yesterday, with all except one of the women and one of the first-time novelists on the long list failing to make the grade.

Sarah Hall was the only woman to survive to the next round of Britain's most prestigious literary prize with her second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, which was not submitted by her publishers for consideration but "called in" by the judges.

But it was David Mitchell who was named by the bookmakers William Hill and Ladbrokes as favourite to win on 19 October with his ambitious broad sweep of a novel, Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has faced the nail-biting result once before, as have his two major rivals on the shortlist, Alan Hollinghurst, with The Line of Beauty, and Colm Toibin for The Master.

The other contenders are Gerard Woodward with his semi-autobiographical second novel, I'll Go to Bed at Noon, and Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor, a South African writer who has devoted his life to black politics and now works for the United Nations.

Chris Smith, the former culture secretary who chaired the judges, admitted there had been some "surprisingly bad" books on the original long list of 132, but the shortlisted six could all hold their own with winners of previous years. But Martin Higgs, the literary editor of Waterstone's bookshops, said the real buzz was about Hollinghurst, Mitchell and Toibin. "It's really a three-horse race in a way that I can't quite remember happening for a long time," he said.

Among the books which failed to make their way to the next round were Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the much talked about debut of Susanna Clarke, and Cherry by Matt Thorne, which provoked controversy after it was revealed that he was a friend of two of the judges.

But the six that won through on the second reading each had their defenders among the jury of Tibor Fischer, a novelist, Robert Macfarlane, a writer and academic, Rowan Pelling, founder of The Erotic Review, and Fiammetta Rocco, a journalist.

Fischer said Cloud Atlas was the "most ambitious novel published this year", that Hollinghurst was "extremely elegant", and Hall was "very lyrical". Robert Macfarlane said The Master by Colm Toibin was a work of "exceptional control" while Rowan Pelling praised Gerard Woodward for his amazing depiction of the effects of addiction on a family.

Yet there were strong criticisms, too, for some of the novels that publishers had originally submitted although none of the judges would name the offenders. "They ranged from drivel through many shades of drivel," Mr Macfarlane said. "This for me is a mahogany shortlist, weighty, serious, beautiful, but we had to throw away a lot of balsa."

The long list of 22 had six books by first-time novelists and a third of the titles were written by women, prompting criticisms that major names such as David Lodge and V S Naipaul had been excluded. But Macfarlane said the prize was for the best book of the year and past form did not count.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London on 19 October. It will be broadcast on BBC2 and BBC4.

THE CONTENDERS

'Bitter Fruit', by Achmat Dangor

Atlantic, £10.99

Crimes from the past erupt into the present, in the story of Silas, Mikey and Lydia, a brittle family in a dysfunctional society. By turns harrowing, erotic and fearlessly satirical, it is a portrait of modern South Africa that also addresses questions of universal significance.

Ladbrokes' odds: 10-1

'The Electric Michelangelo', by Sarah Hall

Faber & Faber, £10.99

Opening in Morecambe Bay during its 1900s heyday, this book chronicles the remarkable life of Cy Parks, a tattoo artist who flees from Morecambe to Coney Island. Atmospheric, anecdotal and historical, Hall's second novel casts an imaginative spell of local colour and lyrical prose.

Odds: 10-1

'The Line of Beauty', by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador, £16.99

In the 1980s, young Nick Guest moves in with the wealthy Feddens. Grand parties, holidays in the Dordogne and a parade of monsters, both comic and threatening, soon follow.

An affair with a millionaire brings into question the larger fantasies of a ruthless decade.

Odds: 3-1

'Cloud Atlas', by David Mitchell

Sceptre, £16.99

Mitchell combines the stories of six individuals to create a masterful whole which is both thought-provoking and exhilarating. In a bold and unconventionally structured work, the stories echo and impact on each other and point to a terrifying vision of the future.

Odds: Evens

'The Master', by Colm Tóibín

Picador, £15.99

Tóibín tells the story of Henry James, the American genius of the modern novel who became a connoisseur of exile, living among artists and aristocrats in Paris, Rome, Venice and London. Tóibín captures the anguish of an artistically gifted man whose life was haunted by loneliness and longing.

Odds: 4-1

'I'll Go to Bed at Noon', by Gerard Woodward

Chatto & Windus, £12.99

A chronicle of an ordinary family's battle with the bottle. Colette Jones has had her problems with alcohol in the past but when her husband joins her eldest son, recently widowed brother and other relatives at the bottom of a glass, she decides it is time to act.

Odds: 10-1

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