This year's battle for the Orange Prize for fiction could be particularly brutal. Despite what judges called the "stereotype" that women can't write about war, that is the subject at the heart of no fewer than half the shortlisted titles for the £30,000 female-only award.
Books by the Canadian author Esi Edugyan and Georgina Harding are set against the backdrop of the Second World War, while the debut novel of Madeline Miller, a Latin teacher, follows the fortunes of some of the heroes of the Trojan War.
Joanna Trollope, who chaired the judging panel, said that the list proves that women can take on big topics: "I wasn't remotely surprised by how well these novels deal with the subject of war. It puts to bed the old stereotype that women just write about domestic and smaller issues rather than epics. These books are as strong as anyone writing in the world at the moment."
Kate Mosse, who co-founded the prize in 1996 and is the best-selling author of Labyrinth, added that "maybe in the past the perception that women couldn't write about war came from the publishers. The books on this list have such ambition. The women who have written them have been so successful whatever the backdrop," she said.
Yet the bookies' favourite on the six-strong shortlist announced yesterday at the London Book Fair was Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick. Yesterday was also the New Yorker's 84th birthday, making her the oldest ever to compete for the prize. Ozick, who has written seven novels, hopes to make it over for the ceremony in London at the end of May, although there is some doubt over the trip as her husband is unwell. She has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the Man Booker International Prize, and is a full half-century older than Miller, whose debut novel The Song of Achilles also made the shortlist and which the judges called "terrific".
Ann Patchett, who is shortlisted for State of Wonder, is a more experienced hand, having written five novels and already won the Orange Prize a decade ago with Bel Canto. Coincidentally, while the authors had never met before, Miller was due to give a reading at the bookshop Patchett owns in Nashville, Tennessee, last night. "We do see the writers involved in the Prize as a community," Mosse said.
Harding is the only Briton on the list dominated by four north Americans, but Mosse was confident that there is plenty of female writing talent on this side of the pond: "This goes in cycles. There is a great deal of great writing in this country, but many of the books didn't fall into the window covered by this year's awards. I suspect next year it will be a very different story."
The final nominee is the Dublin-born Anne Enright, shortlisted for The Forgotten Waltz. The winner will be announced at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London in late May.
In the running: The shortlist
1. Esi Edugyan
The Canadian author wrote her first novel at the age of 25. Half Blood Blues was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.
2. Ann Patchett
Patchett won the Orange Prize in 2002 for Bel Canto. She also runs an independent bookshop.
3. Anne Enright
The Irish writer, a former TV producer and director, won the Man Booker for The Gathering in 2007.
4. Cynthia Ozick
The New Yorker is the oldest author to compete for the award, beating the previous record by a decade.
5. Madeline Miller
Boston-born Miller has taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare at high school. She worked on her debut The Song of Achilles for 10 years.
6. Georgina Harding
Painter of Silence is Harding's third novel, and she has also written several non-fiction works.Reuse content