The shortlist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced this morning in London. The six nominees for the £50,000 (Dh300,000) prize, which will be awarded at a ceremony at London's Guildhall on October 6, include two previous winners of the award, JM Coetzee and AS Byatt. If the South African Coetzee wins for Summertime, a fictional memoir of a dead writer named John Coetzee, he will be the only person to have won the Man Booker three times: he won before for Disgrace in 1999 and Life & Times of Michael K in 1983. Byatt, who is nominated for The Children's Book, a family saga about childhood and the power of storytelling, won for Possession in 1990. The novel was subsequently made into a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
The bookmakers' favourite to win is Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall, an historical novel about Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell. (Mantel was shortlisted for her novel Beyond Black in 2005.) Also nominated are Adam Foulds for The Quickening Maze, about the 19th-century English poet John Clare and his struggle with depression; Simon Mawer for his eighth novel, The Glass Room, an allegory of the Second World War set in 1930s Czechoslovakia; and Sarah Waters for The Little Stranger, a ghost story narrated by a middle-aged doctor.
The chair of the judges, James Naughtie, applauded "six writers on top of their form" and said the shortlist was "so enticing that it will certainly give us a headache when we come to select the winner. The choice will be a difficult one. There is thundering narrative, great inventiveness, poetry and sharp human insight in abundance. "It's a measure of our confidence in their books that all of us are looking forward to reading them yet again before we decide on the prize-winner. What more could we ask?'
Each of the six shortlisted authors, including the winner, receives £2,500 (Dh15,000) and a designer-bound edition of their own book. Notable by their absence from the shortlist were longlisted novels by big hitters such as William Trevor and Colm Tóibín; also James Lever's much-praised Me Cheeta, the fictional autobiography of the chimp who starred opposite Johnny Weismuller in the Tarzan films of the 1930s. Naughtie conceded that Me Cheeta was a "fantastic spoof", but said the panel ultimately felt it was unworthy of inclusion in the "premier league". He added: "Both the Tóibín and the Trevor sailed onto the longlist and sat there with great distinction. But it came to the point with the shortlist where we had to chisel away to get down to the core.'
Last year's Man Booker Prize was won by Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger, which has sold more than half a million copies and been translated into 39 languages. Naughtie presided over a judging panel which comprised the biographer and critic Lucasta Miller; the academic, journalist and broadcaster Professor John Mullan; Michael Prodger, the literary editor of The Sunday Telegraph; and Sue Perkins, the comedian and broadcaster.
* John O'Connell