The love affair between Britain and the narrative sweep of novels from the Indian sub-continent continues with the inclusion of first-time novelist Arundhati Roy on the Booker Prize shortlist.
But Ms Roy's book, a sharp and witty story of a family tragedy resulting from caste conflicts, has a different tone from novelists such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, and its journey on to the shortlist is the stuff of a novel itself.
The shortlist for the pounds 20,000 prize announced yesterday has surprising omissions of big names, including Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Carole Shields. It contains Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty, Quarantine by Jim Crace, The Underground by Mick Jackson, Europa by Tim Parks, The Essence Of Things by Madelaine St John and The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
A former achitectural student and screen writer, Ms Roy was the child of a mixed marriage and the victim of caste prejudice. She spent years living among lepers and social outcasts before achieving sudden fame when she gave a copy of her manuscript to the agent Pankaj Mishra, then a HarperCollins editor in India. He was so excited that he rang her in the middle of the night.
He then sent a copy to literary agent David Godwin in London and Mr Godwin turned up on Ms Roy's doorstep in India, asking to be her agent. Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins, won the auction with an advance of pounds 150,000.
Bookmakers William Hill said last night: "It looks a wide open list and the omission of Ian McEwan is the most interesting one since Martin Amis."
Chairwoman of the judges, Professor Gillian Beer, said the panel had read 106 books. "We don't read every word of every book," she said, " but there are only a few where I've been skipping pages."
Discussing the secret of a successful Booker title, she said: "You must want to read on. You must have some sense of a challenge and a distinctive voice should come through. There must be something that engages you and evokes some form of human life ... Whatever it is, it should be intensely there."
Last year's winner was Graham Swift with Last Orders, narrowly and surprisingly beating Margaret Atwood's engaging and intensely there novel, Alias Grace.
William Hill's Booker odds: 2/1 Bernard MacLaverty "Grace Notes"; 3/1 Jim Crace "Quarantine"; 7/2 Arundhati Roy "The God of Small Things"; 9/2 Madelaine St John "The Essence of the Thing"; 5/1 Tim Parks "Europa"; 6/1 Mick Jackson "The Underground Man"
the BOOKER PRIZE shortlist - what the critics said
Grace Notes, by Bernard MacLaverty (Cape)
A young Northern Irish composer's revolt against her family, with hints at the province's traumatic history. In The Independent, Patricia Craig praised "a very subtle novel which gains its riches from sources far removed from plentiful activity".
Quarantine, by Jim Crace (Viking)
In the Judean wilderness, 2,000 years ago, the young Jesus fasts and watches as, around him, a band of rogues and peasants work through their conflicts. Michael Arditti marvelled at "powers of description as awesome as the landscape he evokes".
Europa, by Tim Parks (Secker & Warburg)
An English language teacher in Italy, who has achieved nothing in love or work, reflects on the spiritual ruins of his life. Nicholas Wroe enjoyed "a thoughtfully realised book that pushes its humour into ever deeper shades of black".
The Underground Man, by Mick Jackson (Picador)
Based on the true story of a 19th-century Duke of Portland, Jackson's first novel explores the weird inner world of an eccentric aristocrat. Francis Spufford called it "a romance of containers" set in "a malleable region of fantastic events".
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (Flamingo)
Lyrical, tragi-comic novel unfolds against the lush South Indian landscape, where twins come to terms with their mother's doomed cross-cultural love match. Maya Jaggi acclaimed "a remarkably assured debut ... both moving and compelling".
The Essence of the Thing, by Madeleine St John (Fourth Estate)
Dark horse of the shortlist. An ostensibly happy Notting Hill menage suddenly falls apart. With a sardonic eye and fierce humour, St John traces a woman's struggle to rebuild her life.
- Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor