THREE FIRST-TIME novelists tackling macabre subjects - the aftermath of conflict in the Balkans, a love affair in a mental institution, and the story of a hermaphrodite baby called Wayne - feature in this year's shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Ta Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, Emma Henderson's Grace Williams Says It Loud, and Kathleen Winter's Annabel made the shortlist announced yesterday for the 30,000 prize for women writers.
They join Emma Donoghue's Room - the tale of a five-year-old boy held in captivity - The Memory of Love - a Sierra Leone love story by Aminatta Forna - and the sprawling cross-continental narrative of Great House by Nicole Krauss.
"It's a very interesting line-up," said Donoghue, the bookies' favourite. "It's still important to be up for awards like this. I've bought several books including Valerie Martin's Property, which won the prize in 2003, because of their association with it. The list of previous winners, including Lionel Shriver and Zadie Smith, is very strong; that's what gives it the glamour."
A surprise omission from the shortlist is Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, a postmodern exploration of the interplay between time and music, which beat Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to win the US National Books Critics Circle fiction prize last month.
Obreht, 25, is the youngest on the shortlist. She was discovered by the New York literary agent Seth Fishman, himself only 30, and was edited by Random House's Noah Eaker, 26. Excerpts were published in The New Yorker's 20 under 40 issue.
"Our judging meeting fizzed for many hours with conversations about the originality, excellence and readability of the books in front of us, credit to the calibre of submissions this year," said judges' chair Bettany Hughes.
The longlist, when it appeared in March, featured the largest number of debuts in 11 years. The prize was set up in 1996 to promote fiction by women around the world. Lionel Shriver won for We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2005, Valerie Martin for Property in 2003, and Zadie Smith for On Beauty in 2006. …