The Booker Shortlist 1996

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Murder in 19th century Canada; paedophiles in Fifties England; V-1 rockets in Bermondsey; castration-happy policemen on the streets of Bombay; menace and lunacy in a Derry distillery; icebergs in the Atlantic... it's not all beer and skittles in Booker-land. Apart from these threatening presences, this year's shortlist is mostly characterised by secrets, uncertainties, puzzles in need of elucidation, guilty knowledge hugged by the characters. It is of course the basic function of a novel to "unfold" a plot so that we come to know the dramatis personae better at the end than we did at the beginning; but I can't remember a time when British fiction - at Booker level anyway - was less interested in narrative exuberance and more interested in static evocation. I wish this were a more original point of view; unfortunately Evelyn Waugh said the same thing in 1957...

The 29th Booker Prize looks set to be a very decent affair: no headbutting, no barging in the line-out, no accusations of sexism, little-Englandism, pretentiousness or bad taste. All six shortlisted writers are wholly respectable and stylish operators; four of them have appeared on the shortlist before (Beryl Bainbridge has practically got a season ticket); they're evenly divided between the sexes; there are representatives from the colonies and dominions (Mistry was born in Bombay and lives in Canada, as does Atwood), and the Celtic Fringe (Deane is from Derry, Mackay was born in Edinburgh). The only faint sign of controversy, in fact, is the inclusion of Seamus Deane's irreducibly autobiographical memoir of childhood Reading in the Dark (which includes an account of a classroom discussion involving his real-life classmate Seamus Heaney); but then the novel-that's-not- necessarily-fiction has a respectable pedigree in Booker circles, from Schindler's Ark onwards. (Besides which, it is good to see one's ex-tutor getting on...)

Also remarkable is the flight from the past in these six novels. As though appalled by the featureless boredom of the Nineties, modern writers plunge more and more into the past in search of richer textures, bolder dramatics, historical phenomena, cause celebres. The modern London through which Graham Swift's quartet of Estuary mates drive is so blank that you have difficulty working out if you're in this decade or the last. The heroine of Shena Mackay's novel, her rural summer trauma a vivid memory, has a bleak time of it in the Nineties, wrestling with an overgrown London garden.

The Booker "long list", which used to be a deadly secret passed among literary editors like a Masonic hymnbook, was made public a month ago and featured an exciting brace of first novelists who, traditionally, don't make much of a showing in the nation's senior literary prize: John Lanchester, whose gastronomi-cultural murderer's confession, The Debt to Pleasure, was the sensation of the spring, and John Preston, whose Ghosting drew a full house of ecstatic reviews over the summer. Elsewhere, Tim Binding's subtle and funny investigation of what happens to a hangman when he hangs up his noose, A Perfect Execution, was strongly fancied, as was Colm Toibin's coming-out-in-the-Falklands tale, The Story of the Night, and Ben Elton's Popcorn which, despite his tiresome moralising, struck a chord with literary commentators all over the metropolis.

The winner will be announced at London's Guildhall on Tuesday 29 October. It's hard to tell whether Mr Mistry's panoramic tale-spinning will wrest the prize from Ms Bainbridge, the Forces' Sweetheart of the literary world; whether the steely glint of Ms Atwood's prose will impress more than the lush and plummy descriptive skills of Shena Mackay; whether Seamus Deane's sombre Celtic gloom will occlude the merits of Graham Swift's terse East London quaffing partners. For my money, it's a two-horse race between Swift and Bainbridge, with Swift getting there by a nose.

Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

Margaret Atwood is, by general consent, near the top of the world's Premier League of novelists. This, her ninth work of fiction and the first time she has used historical events as the basis for a novel, is a disturbing and intense unlocking of the mind of an Irish servant girl who murdered her employer in 1843. Grace Marks spent 30 years in jail and was later pardoned, but nobody knows if she was guilty or innocent. "This is an Atwood-shaped space," commented Carole Angier, "a perfect case for her concerns: women as the objects of men's lusts and fears, and the connections between sexual and political exploitation". The narrative of a prototypical psychoanalyst, Simon, unfolds alongside Grace's own story. Two explanations of her behaviour are offered, but it's the scientist who comes to a sticky end.

Beryl Bainbridge

Every Man for Himself Duckworth, pounds 14.99

Every Man for Himself tells the story of the four days on which the Titanic sailed before its fateful meeting with an iceberg. It follows Beryl Bainbridge's novel about Scott of the Antarctic, The Birthday Boys: as in that book, she uses real people, a real event, a frightfully British catastrophe, to memorialise the death of innocence. Peter Parker wrote: "Bainbridge's description of the unfolding disaster - at once frightening and funny - is done with a series of small deft touches: stairs which look perfectly level, but which unbalance someone descending them... The apparent simplicity of this short, beautifully written book should mislead no-one. Here is a writer who knows precisely what she is doing and who does it with unemphatic but exhilarating panache."

Seamus Deane

Reading in the Dark Cape, pounds 13.99

Seamus Deane is a Derry poet and academic who edited the three- volume Field Day anthology of Irish Literature. The connection between personal and political destiny in modern Ulster is at the heart of this autobiographical debut about a childhood in the Forties, haunted by ghosts, family secrets and sectarian whispers. "The whole locality," wrote Patricia Craig, "seems awash in myths and fables which can work in contradictory ways: to impart information and to keep things tantalisingly obscure... There is something eating away at the heart of this family. Perhaps it is meant to stand in some way for Northern Ireland, scuppered by inherited blight." Reading in the Dark, she concluded, "is consistently felicitous in affect and compelling in atmosphere. But it's not optimistic".

Shena Mackay

The Orchard on Fire Heinemann, pounds 12.99

In Coronation year, 1953, April, aged eight, meets Ruby, her first best friend and shares an idyllic summer of bird-calls, railway carriages and shared jokes in the cornfields and orchard of Stonebridge, the village where April's parents run the local tea-room. Into the picture comes Mr Greenidge, a jovial sort with an invalid wife, a sausage dog and a habit of turning up coincidentally all over the place - and gradually her childhood is corroded with fear. "Mackay undercuts the warmth of April's family life with a real and creeping dread," wrote Esther Freud. "For all the riotous descriptions of nature, the over-packed images too full of adjectives, this is a subtle book. Its themes are simply and beautifully constructed and the beguiling atmosphere of a Fifties childhood lingers on after the last page."

Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance Faber, pounds 15.99

A tremendous feat of old-fashioned story-telling full of post- modernist touches, this 600-page novel is set in mid-Seventies India, during the Emergency, and amounts to a sustained ridiculing of Mrs Gandhi's regime, as the story unfolds of two tailors who come looking for work in a lightly-fictionalised Bombay. "Mistry acquaints us with the main characters' family histories, from the time of Independence, in long flashbacks. He has an excellent command of story-telling structure and maintains a high what-happened-next factor throughout," wrote Hugo Barnacle, although "by the end Mistry's expert tear-jerking technique has become counter- productive and, as he piles catastrophe upon disaster, it is increasingly hard to keep a straight face."

Graham Swift

Last Orders Picador, pounds 15.99

The author of Waterland, by some way the finest British novel of the Eighties, returns with a subtly shaded study of death and chance. The ashes of Jack Dodds, family butcher, are driven by his adopted son and three friends from Bermondsey to Margate where, as per the dead man's instructions, the ashes are to be scattered off the Pier. En route, snatches of conversation, rows, arguments, parallel narratives and flashbacks reveal how the characters' lives are intertwined. "It is all very bitty and incomplete in a lifelike, rather intriguing way," wrote Hugo Barnacle. "It is elaborate and absorbing but without a real narrative urge or unified structure. But Swift succeeds in his main aim, creating just the right kind of amused respect for his characters, and for human variety and mortality".