Boyd Tonkin: Some big omissions, but a nicely balanced list overall

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Literary fashion is a fickle deity. David Mitchell – if he cared – would have ample reason to curse its waywardness. In Britain, where herd-like orthodoxies too often prevail, the "next big thing in fiction" mantle slipped away from him at some point over the past two years. It settled on Tom McCarthy. Both authors (each born in 1969) are blazingly talented writers. Both arguably deserved a place on this year's Man Booker shortlist.

McCarthy, now flavour of the month, reaches it with the richly inventive but structurally flawed historical novel C; whereas Mitchell's richly inventive but structurally flawed historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet disappears from sight.

Omissions aside, this looks a pretty well-weighted list. Taken as a whole, it would immerse those readers who make a point of consuming each Man Booker selection in the strongest currents of mainstream Anglophone fiction outside the United States.

Rather strangely, the prize's representatives have chosen to highlight the humour of the novels. Certainly, it's a quality of several, from the overt satire of Howard Jacobson and the bustling comedy-of-manners of Peter Carey to Emma Donoghue's desperate laughter in the dark. However, any quest for connections could plausibly look for other shared moods, motifs and methods.

Both C, with its sharply angled take on the machine age of the early 20th century, and double winner Peter Carey's genial fantasia of early 19th-century America under European eyes, in their different fashions delve into the revolutionary origins of the modern world.

Meanwhile, Andrea Levy's Caribbean sort-of-prequel to the hugely popular Small Island finds the aftermath of the Atlantic slave system – and its victims – at the foundations of our society.

So a trio of more-or-less "historical" novels unearths, and dissects, our cultural roots. Lyrical (Levy), picaresque (Carey) or fragmentary and hallucinatory (McCarthy), this half of the Booker field shows that history in fiction can now wear a vast range of stylistic costumes.

Further into inner space, Donoghue converts what might have been a purely sensational or sentimental tale into a searching, touching exploration of the dynamics of childhood – and of parenthood. Damon Galgut's three linked stories of selfhood in transit evokes again the Booker quandary about what makes a single work of fiction. And the exuberant melancholy – or tearful comedy – of Jacobson's latest account of faith, ideals and identity in an age of doubt neatly bridges the gap between self and society, past and present.

It all makes for a balanced ticket –and, at first glance, an open field. Forget the bookies' odds, and read the books instead.

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