The Booker Prize runners and riders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

What would the Man Booker Prize, one of the richest and most coveted literary awards, be without controversy, manufactured or otherwise? There was concern enough that the shortlist of six novels, announced on September 6, from a long list of 13 titles, featured only one 'name' author, Ian McEwan. There is always a row about who is overlooked.

This year's 'scandal' focuses on the outspoken chair of the panel of judges, Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics.

Jeanette Winterson, whose The Stone Gods (reviewed this week)

was among those overlooked in the long list, was appalled at Davies' admission that he read 80 pages an hour. 'If you've got some bloody idiot who thinks it's great to read at 80 pages an hour when it's not The Da Vinci Code, you're doomed,'

she told The Guardian, which is something of a watchdog when it comes to the Booker. Davies took umbrage and, in an unapologetic retort in The Independent, declared Winterson's book 'a complete failure as a novel'.

The winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize and its GBP50,000 (HK$790,000) will be announced on Tuesday. The punters have their preferences, as the odds from Ladbrokes attest, but the judges have backed themselves into a corner. The winner is obvious.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray) - 2/1

This surprise favourite from the New Zealand writer had five impressions in softcover before reaching hardback. Jones, 52, attracted attention in 1993 when his Biografi: An Albanian Quest, was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Mister Pip won the Commonwealth literary prize in May.

Set in Bougainville amid the 1990s uprising, Mister Pip weaves a reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations into the brutal realities of a minor war and its incumbent atrocities. Potentially a powerful example of post-colonial literature, it's let down by its final chapters.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape) - 5/2

There have been arguments that this is more novella than novel, although, at 166 pages, it's only 12 pages shy of his Amsterdam, which won the 1998 Booker. This is the 10th novel from 45-year-old McEwan.

Set in 1962, about a married couple's first night together, the book's premise is the universal problem of communication, of what is said and left unsaid, of moments in everyone's lives when a single word changes everything, for better or worse. McEwan's sublime accomplishment is to end this rich and lyrical tale exactly where he should, with the reader clamouring for more and, by rights, the prize should be his.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate) - 4/1

Barker, 41, sallies forth in her seventh novel with an inventive and often witty 838-page epic centred on the town of Ashford in Kent and involving a large cast of characters and the manifested spirit of one John Scogin, 16th-century court jester of Edward IV.

This risky book has little in the way of plot and relies on careful construction and exploration of language to lead the reader. Critics were divided, except in agreement that Barker is not to everyone's taste. One reviewer was 'bereft' when it ended, another annoyed and exhausted by its 'arbitrary and unsatisfactory' resolution.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton) - 6/1

Reviewing in these pages, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar declared The Reluctant Fundamentalist to be 'a beautifully written narrative' in which Hamid, 36, 'explores the dilemma of a young man who discovers within him a primeval force - patriotism' following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Hamid, who moved to London from Lahore via Princeton and Harvard Law School, and who has Moth Smoke (2000) to his credit, deserves praise for his control and 'lovely stillness', but he lays on the symbolism with a trowel.

The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) - 9/1

What would the Booker be without a showing from Ireland? Enright, 45, delivers a family epic set around the alcoholic death of a younger brother and pursued through an uncomfortable first-person narrative filled with what one critic called unconvincing 'omniscient third-person flashbacks'.

With three novels to her credit, Enright, a product of Malcolm Bradbury's writing school, displays the technique and imagination required of a great writer but as yet lacks the mastery, not least the grammar, expected of a Booker Prize winner.

Animal's People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster) - 9/1

An award-winning advertising copywriter, Sinha, 57, bases his second novel, Animal's People, in a small Indian town ravaged by a toxic chemical leak from a nearby American factory. Turn your mind to Bhopal and Union Carbide.

His narrator is a teenage boy with a damaged spine who learns to walk on his hands and wants only to walk upright and experience humanity. This is a big-issue novel - justice, equality, the nature of man - and Sinha leaves the reader with much to think about, but the verbosity of his characters almost drowns out the message.