The judges of the Man Booker Prize proved giantkillers yesterday when they eliminated Martin Amis, J M Coetzee and Graham Swift, producing a shortlist with more first-time novelists and women than ever before.
After a meeting fraught with clashes that lasted two and a half hours and was resolved only by a series of votes, the judges emerged to reveal a list that included just one established name - the Canadian author Margaret Atwood, a previous winner of the Booker. Announcing the results, John Carey, the chairman, said: "You'll see that this has been David's year, not Goliath's in the Man Booker Prize."
There was no sense of schadenfreude in excluding some of publishing's stars, Professor Carey said. "The big names are the names that have given us enjoyment and inspiration over previous years. But what we did was judge the books that came to us as books. It happened that the big names this year did not produce the big books."
Apart from Atwood, whose previous win was for The Blind Assassin in 2000, the other three women to have survived from the 23-strong longlist have all been chosen for their first published novel.
Ladbrokes bookmakers immediately made one of them, Monica Ali, the 2/1 favourite. Born in Bangladesh and living in London, she caused one of the publishing sensations of the summer with Brick Lane.
She is joined by the newspaper columnist Zoe Heller, 38, with Notes on a Scandal, and Clare Morrall, who raises the hopes of all who despair at publishing's obsession with the next bright young thing by securing her place with Astonishing Splashes of Colour at the age of 51.
The other contenders are Damon Galgut, 39, from South Africa for The Good Doctor, and Peter Finlay, an Australian raised in Mexico by British parents, with Vernon God Little, published under the pseudo-nym D B C Pierre.
Asked about the most contentious book of the year, Yellow Dog by Martin Amis, which divided critics, Professor Carey said it was right that Yellow Dog should have been considered. But there was no book on the final shortlist he would want removed for Amis to go through.
None the less, each of the judges admitted they had favourites they were sorry to see fail. The philosopher A C Grayling, who said all his reading had suggested the traditional novel was "in very good shape", put in a word for Frankie & Stankie by Barbara Trapido and for Crossing the Lines by Melvyn Bragg. The writer D J Taylor and the broadcaster Francine Stock praised Turn Again Home by Carol Birch.
For Professor Carey and the mountaineer Rebecca Stephens, Mark Haddon's highly acclaimed novel about a boy with Asperger's syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, was a favourite.
Martin Higgs, the literary editor of Waterstone's, also favoured Haddon. Mr Higgs said he believed that book would have been a popular choice with the public for a prize often criticised as producing impenetrable winners.
The books by Monica Ali, Zoe Heller and D B C Pierre were all good, he added, "but they are at the challenging end of the Booker. To some extent we've been spoilt by just how well last year's winner, Life of Pi [by Yann Martell], has done. It's been the bestselling Booker book for years." The 2003 winner will be announced at a ceremony at the British Museum on 14 October, to be broadcast live on BBC2 and BBC4.
BOYD TONKIN, LITERARY EDITOR, ASSESSES THE CONTENDERS
Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Doubleday, £12.99
Torn between Bangladeshi roots and East End reality, complacent older husband and militant young lover, Ali's heroine Nazneen dominates one of the most widel discussed fictional debuts for years. Not every critic has agreed that Ali succeeds: Time magazine thought it cliche-ridden and "as dull as dhal".
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, £16.99
The Canadian virtuoso aims at a second Booker win with a complex and effective exploration of a futuristic nightmare. Through the adventures of Jimmy, Atwood takes us into a dystopia of climatic calamity. Here, bio-science beyond control has muddled the human and non-human.
The Good Doctor, Damon Galgut, Atlantic Books, £10.99
Galgut makes a striking comeback with this haunting account of a doctor's ordeal in the backwaters of post-apartheid South Africa. In this uncanny place, Kafka meets Coetzee (one of this year's big Booker losers) as the idealistic hospital physician Laurence spars with the disenchanted Frank.
Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller, Viking, £14.99
In this acerbic and elegant tale, the thwarted busybody Barbara reports on the sexual disgrace that engulfs her fellow teacher Bathsheba, who takes as a lover a 15-year-old pupil. The novel is not so much a satire on media mores and public prurience as a study in solitude, projection and fantasy.
Astonishing Splashes of Colour, Clare Morrall, Tindal Street Press, £7.99
This small press in Birmingham strikes success with an improbably uplifting novel about depression and its sources. Grieving for a child, the perennially detached Kitty explores the bruising, male-dominated family history that has led to her sense of isolation.
Vernon God Little, By D B C Pierre, Faber & Faber, £12.99
D B C Pierre has a background mixed up enough to explain the feat of ventriloquism achieved in his debut. A school massacre has turned Vernon from teen eccentric into scapegoat. He recounts his tangled past and harried present in a voice that gives new life to the Southern Gothic novel.
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