Booker prize goes for the big kill as unknowns dominate shortlist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 September, 2003, 12:00am

In a year when A-list authors have produced below-par work, the judges have snubbed heavyweights and favoured newcomers in the Man Booker shortlist.

'This is giant killers' year,' said chair of the judges John Carey when the shortlist was announced on Tuesday. 'Three first novels and only one big name left.'

With so many giants gone, Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker in 2000 and has been shortlisted three times, now stands head and shoulders above the rest.

British bookmaker William Hill has already made Atwood's futuristic novel, Oryx And Crake, a 2-1 favourite, but given this judging panel's delight in slaying Goliaths, the smart money is on a little-known author to pick up the prize.

Joining Atwood in the second round of Britain's most prestigious literary prize are: Monica Ali for Brick Lane, Damon Galgut for The Good Doctor, Zoe Heller for Notes On A Scandal, Clare Morrall for Astonishing Splashes Of Colour and D.B.C Pierre for Vernon God Little.

The biggest upset is the dropping of J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. The South African has won the Booker twice and was widely tipped to take it again this year with his heavily philosophical work about a famous novelist.

Graham Swift, another Booker regular who won in 1996 and was nominated in 1983, was also expected to sail through with The Light Of Day.

Martin Amis, Melvyn Bragg and Caryl Phillips have all been culled. Even Mark Haddon's hugely fashionable crossover novel The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, has gone. Haddon started out as a 20-1 outsider, but after a run of bets Hill slashed the odds to 6-1, making him the favourite.

Peter Carey, the only person other than Coetzee to have won the prize twice, didn't even make it to the longlist with My Life As A Fake. Carey responded by giving an interview to The Australian newspaper a few days later in which he declared the Booker 'a crapshoot'.

Newcomer Monica Ali is definitely one to watch. She's already been chosen as one of Granta's Best Young Novelists and received a #300,000 (HK$3.7 million) advance for Brick Lane on the basis of a few chapters. Her story about a Bangladeshi woman who is shipped to Britain for an arranged marriage is somewhat lacklustre, but the spectacle of a young, beautiful Muslim woman writing about London's East End may prove irresistible. One of the judges, the critic Anthony Grayling, has said that it's a personal favourite.

Another first-timer, Australian-born D.B.C. Pierre, has had rave reviews for Vernon God Little, a novel about a massacre at a Texas high school. Given that there have been calls for the Booker to be opened up to Americans, it would be ironic if the prize went to a book set in the American heartland.

The third debut novelist, Clare Morrall, could just as easily be a surprise winner with Astonishing Splashes Of Colour, published by tiny Birmingham-based Tindal Street Press. Judge D.J. Taylor has already said he hopes the prize will this year be given 'to someone - and some publishing firm - outside the London glamour circuit'.

Zoe Heller, with her tale about a female teacher who has an affair with a student, and Damon Galgut's Graham Greene-like story about a South African doctor, have all been well recieved.

The judges are following last year's panel by spurning 'heavyweight and humourless books' and going for fresh new talent.

The winner will be announced on October 14.