Usual Booker suspects fall at first hurdle

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The Independent Culture

Rather like the Grand National, the Man Booker reliably delivers a cull of firm favourites and fancied outsiders. A swathe of heavily backed steeds fall at early or late fences, leaving the final stretch occupied by several runners of unknown form and uncertain colours.

In that respect, this year's shortlist keeps up a long tradition. Kiran Desai had, before her Himlayan epic The Inheritance of Loss, published only a relatively slight debut novel. M J Hyland had also had one outing (How the Light Gets In) before the troubled Irish childhood of Carry Me Down thrust her onto this list. And Hisham Matar had written nothing before his compelling story of love, fear and survival inside and outside Gaddafi's Libya, In the Country of Men.

Edward St Aubyn, a singular stylist who inspires both adoration and annoyance, returns after a period of silence with Mother's Milk, and Kate Grenville - although an Orange and Commonwealth prize victor - has not yet achieved a profile here to match her Australian renown. The tersely epic outback conflicts of The Secret River deserve to change all that. Only Sarah Waters stands out as a totally familiar name to infrequent readers of fiction. Even here, The Night Watch daringly departs from her well-loved Victorian terrain to tell its tale of love and loss in wartime London backwards.

In their quest for the "distinctive original voice" and the "audacious imagination", Hermione Lee and the other judges have also sprung different surprises. Most obviously, the majority of women writers is a Booker rarity, last seen in 2003.

The panel proved resistant to the lure of favourites such as double winner Peter Carey (with Theft) and young master David Mitchell (with his recreated 1980s childhood, Black Swan Green). Equally, they turned away from the urgent timeliness of Claire Messud's New York novel set on the eve of 11 September 2001, The Emperor's Children; of Barry Unsworth's dramatisation of Muslim-Christian amity and tension in medieval Sicily, The Ruby in her Navel; and Andrew O'Hagan's depiction of a priest in Scotland dragged down by a paedophilia scandal, Be Near Me. All three would have made powerful contenders.

In the parallel publishers' gallop the big winner this year, with two shortlisted titles, is Canongate - Jamie Byng's charmed Edinburgh independent, which won in 2002 with The Life of Pi. And the big loser, yet again, is the Random House group, with no titles on the short list.

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