It is militantly uncontroversial. There's none of the fusillade of Celtic effing and blinding that characterised the winners in the last two years (James Kelman, Roddy Doyle), no exquisite bursts of prose-poetry from Sri Lanka, no epics of chronically shape-changing natural phenomena from emergent African nations, to baffle the British reader. Instead, here's a quintet of four-square, honest-to-goodness, rather old-fashioned fictions, well-sculpted, solid and with claims on your heart: an historical whodunit, a Great War drama, a transcontinental quest, a confessional peripateia around modern London - and Salman Rushdie's own unique firestorm of serio- comic exuberance in which the fortunes of a Bombay family mirror India's modern history, while the narrator's own predicament (he's in prison awaiting, like the reader, The End) lends an added autobiographical fatwa-frisson to the rain of puns and portmanteau language.
On Radio Four's Kaleidescope, George Walden, the chairman of the Booker judges was at pains to point out that "We argued passionately for a long time... We argued over literary merit and no other consideration" - this presumably to scotch any idea that Rushdie's includion was a sympathy vote or Pat Barker was some kind of token Little Lady. The disappointing selection of five, rather than six, titles was explained by the fact that "there was great enthusiasm among the judges for these five titles. There was no other book that had the same degree of overall support, and we did not want to compromise for the sake of numbers". "The arguments were very fierce at the end," said Kate Kellaway, another of the judges, "Then suddenly we began to see a shortlist appear. We saw a road ahead...". This Damascan epiphany presumably means that the final five achieved some sublime (if undefined) plateau of excellence that reduced the remaining books to also-rans. Since we know that the penultimate selection of 13 titles - the so-called "long shortlist" - included such fine and enjoyable titles as Martin Amis's The Information, Gordon Burn's Fullalove, Paul Watkins's Archangel and John Banville's Athena, this is quite a claim. If the judges genuinely ascribe to the final round-up some homogeneous characteristics denied to the rest, they should let the literary-critical world know as soon as possible.
No-one would suggest that the judges set out with any preconceptions as to subject matter. But it is still a surprise to note how grimly masculine and macho-centric the Booker has become: war, trek, rugby, Hindu gangsters, mid-life-crisis businessmen, men on the edge, at the airport, at the front, up the creek. Even the long shortlist was similarly bulging with testosterone. Wasn't there a time in living memory when more than one woman turned up on the shortlist? When Anita Brookner or the Penelopes Lively and Fitzgerald were in with a chance? When the literary press complained that the final six were just too effetely bookish to be true? What kind of fin-de-siecle is it which produces such bruised-knuckle stuff?
A good list, however, which anyone interested in modern fiction will have a marvellous (if perspiration-drenched) time reading. The current odds from William Hill put Salman Rushdie streets-ahead favourite at 4- 5, with Unsworth second (7/2), Cartwright third (5/1) and Barker and Winton joint fourth (7/1). The judges make their final decision on 7 November.
The Ghost Road
Viking, pounds 15
This is the third of the Teeside-born Barker's trilogy about the Great War, featuring WHR Rivers, the army psychologist who, in previous volumes, tended to the war traumas of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. It is set in 1918, when bodies - and nightmare memories - are piled up mountainously. Rivers goes down with flu and dreams of his days studying the natives of a Melanesian island before the war - a race of people with a whole, ameliorative culture of ghosts and a sophistication about sex and death denied to the western culture that war has torn apart. Images of imprisonment, hallucination and memento mori stud the book, as Ms Barker gazes at the folly of war through satirical eyes. Harrowing, original, delicate and unforgettable.
In Every Face I Meet
Sceptre, pounds 15.99
Justin Cartwright, 52, has been shortlisted for so many prizes (for "Masai Dreaming", "Interior", "Look At It This Way") he once confessed that his health was suffering from constant tantalisation. His new novel (title from Blake's poem "London": "I ... mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe") takes a single day in February 1990 and listens to the thought processes of two men on a collision course - one a drunken investment banker obsessed with Nelson Mandela and his (and Cartwright's) South African boyhood, the other a crack-dealing pimp called Jason. This is a novel stuffed with lovingly detailed observations of Nineties London street life and crappy corporate-speak, both pitilessly nailed by a master satirist.
The Moor's Last Sigh
Cape, pounds 15.99
Everyone - well, almost everyone - seems to agree that in "The Moor's Last Sigh", Rushdie has returned to the form that won him the Booker in 1981 for "Midnight's Children". Going back to Bombay, he takes his readers on a magical realist mystery tour which delights in its own fictive energy, weaving together the comic, the fantastic and the historical. Rushdie's narrator-hero, Moraes, is a Jewish Catholic afflicted with a surreal malady: his body ages at twice the normal rate, leaving him wizened and bowed at the age of 36. He recounts the story of three generations of his family - which he claims to have traced back to Vasco da Gama. This novel reveals Rushdie at the peak of his inventiveness. It is this year's clear favourite.
BARRY UNSWORTH Morality Play
Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99 Durham-born Barry Unsworth, 65, was joint winner of the Booker in 1992 with "Sacred Hunger", his epic tale of slave ships and 18th- century values. His rare talent for evoking the authentic reek of the past (15th-century Venice in "Stone Virgin", the last days of the Ottoman Empire in "Pascali's Island") is undercut by his fascination with moral cruxes. In "Morality Play", a troupe of strolling players fetch up in a village where a murder has been committed - and, instead of their ordinary fare of Christian triumphalism, they decide to enact a real-life murder mystery drawn from the local events. On one level you're reading a medieval whodunit; on another, you're caught up in a brilliant reflection on the transformative power of Art.
TIM WINTON The Riders
Picador, pounds 14.99 Bizarrely precocious and prolific, Perth-born Tim Winton trains an appalled Antipodean eye on Europe in "The Riders", his 13th novel. It concerns a quest across the continent by an Australian rough diamond called Scully who is about to set up home in an Irish cottage when his wife fails to turn up at the airport; she has disappeared into the gross and bewildering heart of Europe, abandoning their little girl, Billie. The book tracks his journey, accompanied by his daughter, through Greece, France, Holland and (finally and most horribly) London ... Reeking physical descriptions animate a modern trek through the Old World in a moving story about exorcising the ghosts of the past which is intensely compassionate and humane.