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Lost dogs and enchantresses make for a strong Booker list, but where is Kelman?

Boyd Tonkin,Literary Editor
Wednesday 30 July 2008 00:00 BST

Let's get the annual squall of outrage over first. Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman deserved at least a shortlist place in this year's Man Booker contest. Indeed, the beautifully observed, deeply affecting first-person portrait of a Glasgow childhood outshines Roddy Doyle's Dublin equivalent, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – which won the prize in 1993.

No novelist in Britain – apart, that is, from Salman Rushdie – suffers more from snide and stupid caricatures of who he is and what he does than Kelman. Sadly, this oversight suggests that slanderous mud can stick even in strong minds. But maybe the spikily radical Scot was never going to make headway against a panel chaired by a Thatcher-era minister, Michael Portillo.

The "Booker dozen" of 13 titles delivers some good news as well. The judges have saluted the awesomely smart and agile writing of the Sri Lankan-born Australian, Michelle de Kretser, in The Lost Dog. They have registered how cleverly Amitav Ghosh merges colour, humour and adventure on the 19th-century high seas into the big historical picture in Sea of Poppies.

Later in the judging, though, its status as the first salvo in a trilogy might prove a problem. They have spotted the strength and subtlety behind Aravind Adiga's dissection of India's economic boom in The White Tiger. In the author's 82nd year, and 36 years after he won the Booker for G., they have have fallen under the hypnotic spell of John Berger's fable of war, plunder and resistance, From A to X.

Some of the choices almost made themselves. No fair-minded reader could deny the radiant panache, ingenuity and exuberance of Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. In my Booker-judging experience, however, the quarrels over Rushdie only get going at this stage. Off-the-scale rave reviews may have helped Joseph O'Neill's Netherland book itself a place but perhaps the Irish-born writer's sumptuously elegiac novel of cricket in New York and the aftermath of 11 September peaked too soon. I sense that a backlash may be gathering force.

Some less predictable contenders merit a cheer. Modest in appearance, Linda Grant's The Clothes on their Backs quietly contains tumultuous stories of persecution, migration, social upheaval and moral compromise – much like its secretive characters. With his Stalin-era investigator in Child 44, Tom Rob Smith achieves what has so far eluded the Rankins and Jameses: a penultimate-round Booker run for an upscale detective novel. And, with Gaynor Arnold's Girl in a Blue Dress, her as-yet-unpublished novel rooted in Charles Dickens's miserable marriage, the Birmingham indie house Tindal Street Press confirms its magic touch - seen most recently in the multiple triumphs of Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost.

I will miss several other notable absentees from the later Booker heats. David Park's wise and moving novel of the search for reconciliation in post-Troubles Belfast, The Truth Commissioner, should have caught the judges' eye. As should, arguably, a formidable trio of Australian fictions: Helen Garner's The Spare Room; Alexis Wright's Carpentaria; Tim Winton's Breath. No matter: the critical dogs bark, and the Booker caravan moves on. Here is my selection for a plausible shortlist composed from the hand the judges have now dealt: personal preferences, not a tip sheet, so don't demand your money back.

The literary editor's choice

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (Atlantic)

Balram, the deeply unreliablenarrator of this blistering debut, recounts his ascent from the "darkness" of rural village lifeto the Delhi entrepreneurial class in letters that reveal his character, his fractured and feverish society, and the underside of India's shiny new elite.

John Berger, From A to X (Verso)

The veteran writer and critic's "story in letters" between two lovers in a time of war and conquest sets the small pleasures and enduring affections of a woman in a poor, besieged town against the might and money of the First World forces that threaten her community.

Linda Grant, The Clothes On Their Backs (Virago)

In late-1970s London, the style-hopping daughter of self-effacing Jewish immigrants from Hungary finally gets to know her larger-than-life uncle: a monster of sorts, a dauntless survivor, and a man whom savage history has driven into a change of soul rather than clothes.

Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus)

In trendy downtown Melbourne and the bush beyond, a lonely Indian-born academic searches for his beloved dog, for his childhood in Asia and Australia, and for the secrets of a mysterious artist whose vision of mixed-up urban life matches his own fragile sense of self.

Joseph O'Neill, Netherland (Fourth Estate)

The death of a friend pitches a London-based Dutch banker back to a New York shaken to its core in the aftermath of 9/11, when cricket forged an improbable bond between outsiders who carry through their uprooted lives the quest for a home in a world of ever-shifting borders.

Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence (Cape)

An enigmatic stranger arrives in the 16th-century Mughal capital bringing tall tales of a family saga that unites Italy and India – stories that spiral back across Asia and Europe to the Florence of Machiavelli's time, and a princess whose lives, and loves, span continents.

The full list of contenders

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (Atlantic)

Gaynor Arnold, Girl in a Blue Dress (Tindal Street Press)

Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)

John Berger, From A to X (Verso)

Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus)

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray)

Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)

Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Jonathan Cape)

Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)

Joseph O'Neill, Netherland (Fourth Estate)

Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence (Jonathan Cape)

Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 (Simon & Schuster)

Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)

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