Eyes On The Prize

The people behind the Booker Prize opened somewhat of a new chapter this year.

The prize, one of the world's most prestigious for literary fiction, has always had a reputation for honoring fusty, turgid tomes. But this year, things will be different. Last month the judges--bleary-eyed from reading 130 nominated books each--attacked publishers for submitting works they called "portentous," "pretentious" and "pompous." That day, the committee announced the six surprising new novels that they'd chosen as finalists. The judges had turned down hot twentysomething author Zadie Smith and the established Anita Brookner in favor of unexpected, quirky choices such as Yann Martel's "Life of Pi," a witty, highly entertaining read that's somewhere between fact and fable.

Yesterday, on the Booker Prize's Web site, it was mistakenly--and embarrassingly--announced that Martel had already won. A spokeswoman said the posting was an error. "The judges haven't met yet," she told The Guardian. "I can guarantee that this isn't the actual result."

The fresh, diverse shortlist wasn't the only change. From now on, the award will be called the "Man Booker Prize," a title that reflects a new sponsor, the Man Group, a British brokerage house. Plus, controversial plans are underway to offer American authors a shot at the [Pound sterling]50,000 ($77,000) prize, which is currently only awarded to authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. Americans could be eligible just two years from now.

As for this year's nominees, the winner will be announced on Oct. 22. NEWSWEEK reviewed the candidates:

William Trevor, "The Story of Lucy Gault" (Picador)

Trevor's subtle, understated prose tells a story of loss and absence. Set in southern Ireland in 1921, a local Protestant landowner accidentally wounds a young arsonist with a warning shot fired from an old rifle. Fearing reprisals, he moves his family to England. But a rash act of defiance from his young daughter furthers the family's problems. The book's style, poignancy and beautifully drawn characters make it the likely winner. Odds: 2-to-1.

Tim Winton, "Dirt Music" (Picador)

Former nurse Georgie Jutland is losing her mind in the small, windswept town of White Point, Australia, living with a fisherman she doesn't love and his two kids, whose dead mother she can't replace. Hers is a claustrophobic community, bonded by age-old secrets. Mesmerizing descriptions of the country's unforgiving landscape heighten the tense drama that unfolds. Winton nearly burned the manuscript for "Dirt Music" because he was convinced it was a dud. Good thing he didn't. Odds: 3-to-1.

Sarah Waters, "Fingersmith" (Virago)

Set in a Dickensian, 19th-century underworld of London thieves, "Fingersmith" is a sensational historical melodrama, replete with treachery, betrayal and madness. In the book, a gang of tricksters set out to defraud an heiress of her fortune, but life in her country house--where the library is bulging with pornography--turns out to be darker than it seemed. It's the Marquis de Sade meets "Les Liasons Dangerouses." Odds: 7-to-2.

Carol Shields, "Unless" (Fourth Estate)

Known for her beguiling, lyrical depictions of everyday life, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Carol Shields explores grander themes in "Unless" without losing her exquisite touch. Having skirted the compromises most women face by emphasizing her role as housewife, Reta Winters finds her suburban existence poisoned when her oldest daughter disappears and is found begging on the streets with a sign around her neck that says GOODNESS. Her child has become a stranger to Reta, whose grief forces her to take a hard look at her own life. Odds: 5-to-1

Rohinton Mistry, "Family Matters" (Faber and Faber)

Strong on storytelling and rich in description, "Family Matters" is a classic Booker novel. It's a sprawling, touching chronicle of three generations of a Parsi family in modern Bombay. Patriarch Nariman Vakeel realizes too late in life that he repudiated his true love to marry within his faith. At age 79, he falls badly and is confined to bed. That's when his family life truly begins to unravel. A traditionalist's choice--but this definitely isn't the year for it to win. Odds: 5-to-1.

Yann Martel, "Life of Pi" (Canongate)

Martel's witty, outrageous "Life of Pi" falls somewhere between a fairy tale and a classic sea disaster yarn in the tradition of "Moby Dick" or "Gulliver's Travels." The book's short preface sets the scene: traveling through India in search of material, Martel came across an elderly man who told him he knew "a story that will make you believe in God." He told the tall tale of Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy who, after a shipwreck, finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The book straddles the tantalizing gray area between fact and fable. Will it win? Miracles can happen. Odds: 10-to-1.