'Harvest' time is here
Sole Englishman on shortlist would be a fitting winner of the last Man Booker before door opens to the world
The 2013 Man Booker has been overshadowed by the announcement that, starting next year, the prize for the best novel written in English by a Commonwealth writer will go international, breaking its 42-year exclusion of writers from America.
The decision has drawn criticism from many - often English - authors including Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest is the favourite for this year's prize. "As soon as you get a couple of years running in which the majority of people on that shortlist are Americans, it will seem less essential in England," he has warned.
Curiously given the furore, this year's prize - to be awarded on Tuesday - seems to have been one of the happiest, most diverse and most impressive of recent years. Chairman Robert Macfarlane praised the finalists for their "style, verve, experimentation". He was assisted by critics Stuart Kelly, Natalie Haynes and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, and journalist and broadcaster Martha Kearney.
As always, the longlist - selected from a total of 152 - carried its share of surprises. There was no place for Margaret Atwood, whose MaddAddam had been whispered as a contender. David Peace's wonderful Red or Dead also missed out, as did two-time winner J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus.
We were left with a weird and wonderful band: for instance, Richard House's The Kills, a 700-page compilation of four novellas previously published online. That left the final six nominees: an Englishman, an Irishman, a Canadian-Japanese, a New Zealander, a Zimbabwean, and an American with Indian parents who was born in London.
Which leaves the big question: who will win come Tuesday?
by Jim Crace
Betting: 6/4 William Hill, 11/8 Paddy Power
Jim Crace is the clear favourite for this year's Man Booker. Novelist and critic Philip Hensher declared that he "can hardly see where else the prize can go than to the long-overdue Crace". His nomination arrived just in the nick of time: Crace, 67, announced earlier this year that he would be retiring, adding a touch of "now or never" to his second appearance on the shortlist; his debut was for 1997's Quarantine. But the bookies also acknowledge Harvest, a spooky, possessed story set in England, possibly during the 19th century, in which Crace recounts the destruction of a small village. The 58 inhabitants fear witchcraft, but the causes are all too human: the enclosure acts which seized common land for more profitable trades. An elegy for one nation's agrarian past, Harvest is a nuanced reminder that progress costs lives. Harvest would be a worthy and poignant winner. Crace is just happy to be considered. "Once you've reached the shortlist you've already got a result," he has said.
We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo
(Chatto & Windus)
Betting: 13/2 William Hill, 8/1 Paddy Power
In most Man Bookers, 32-year-old NoViolet Bulawayo would be the youngest writer on the list. That honour in 2013 goes to Eleanor Catton, but We Need New Names is still a surprise and a breath of fresh air. The debut novel casts an unflinching eye over Zimbabwe through a series of interlinked short stories. These variously explore land redistribution, the country's slums, dangerous superstitions and Western aid. Her narrator, a young girl named Darling, recounts these horrors with a tone that is both older than her years and full of joy. When she moves to America, the ironies and pathos intensify. The bookies have almost unanimously given NoViolet NoChance.
by Eleanor Catton
(Granta) Betting: 7/2 William Hil, 3/1 Paddy Power
Just 27 years old, Eleanor Catton is the youngest member of 2013's shortlist. Although she will be 28 on the big night, Catton would still be the youngest Man Booker winner ever. And there is a growing feeling that a writer described as "literature's golden girl" might just do it. The Luminaries is an 800-page, multi-narrator epic set in New Zealand during the 1866 gold rush. It is, for the most part, an old-fashioned realist romp that keeps the reader guessing about 12 different characters. Structured along astrological lines, the ending is glorious and strange - and sure to cause arguments in book groups across the world. Catton is enjoying herself: "It's been a real ride," she said after reaching the longlist. "Only three New Zealanders have ever been on the list before and only one has ever won. It's totally national news."
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Betting: 11/2 William Hill, 8/1 Paddy Power
Crace and Colm Tóibín aside, Jhumpa Lahiri has the biggest reputation of the final six. Best known as a short-story writer, she won 2000's Pulitzer Prize for her collection Interpreter of Maladies. Her second novel, The Lowland, begins in Calcutta in 1967. We follow two brothers: older sibling Subhash moves to America where he makes a new and affluent life for himself. Udayan is a committed communist who stays home to fight for his nation's future. Lahiri has proved herself a fluid writer across a range of subjects - some critics have worried that she is perhaps too fluid for her own good.
A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Betting: 8/1 William Hill, 6/1 Paddy Power
A Zen Buddhist of Canadian-Japanese heritage, Ruth Ozeki sounds like an outsider on a list of outsiders. Bookies are divided on her chances, which might best be described as slim. This hesitancy reflects A Tale for the Time Being's experimental mood. Ozeki's subject is time, as signalled by her narrator whose name "Nao" is pronounced "now". Nao's story of despair in Tokyo becomes strangely connected to the tsunami of 2011. A Canadian couple discover her diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, which washes up in British Columbia. Odd and at times whimsical, the narrative is ambitious after a postmodern fashion, replete with notes, a bibliography and inter-textual games. While never less than absorbing, A Tale for the Time Being would be a surprising victor.
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Betting: 7/2 William Hill, 3/1 Paddy Power
If Man Bookers were handed out on reputation, Colm Tóibín would win this year's, having already been shortlisted twice (for The Master and The Blackwater Lightship). The Testament of Mary, at 104 pages, would be the shortest winner ever. Initially a play called Testament, this miniature masterpiece depicts the Virgin Mary's grief for her son. The narrative is a form of interrogation, as John the Baptist interviews her about the blossoming Christian cause. Tóibín's Mary is vulnerable but furious and deeply suspicious at the way Jesus' life is being rewritten by his disciples. It is a taut, brilliant work that might just win.
Predictions for Tuesday? Crace looks set to win at last, but this shortlist is unpredictable enough to throw spanners in the works - most obviously in the shape of Catton and Tóibín.
A Catton win feels the more likely of the two. Announcing a major young talent seems an attractive prospect for the Man Booker. Tóibín's more concentrated novella would also be a welcome victor, confirming his status as one of the world's finest writers.
Personally, I am plumping for Crace, by a hair over Catton: age before youth, and an English Man Booker for the last "English" Man Booker.