Last year’s Man Booker winner, Wolf Hall, leads shortlist alongside two first-time authors

Two debut novelists will take on the seemingly unstoppable might of Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall for this year’s Orange prize for fiction, judges said today.

A shortlist of six was named for what is the only annual UK prize specifically for fiction written by women. The winner will be chosen from Mantel, Rosie Alison (for The Very Thought of You), Barbara Kingsolver (for The Lacuna), Attica Locke (for Black Water Rising), Lorrie Moore (for A Gate at the Stairs), and Monique Roffey (for The White Woman on the Green Bicycle).

The two first-timers are Locke and Alison. Alison’s book, a love story, tells the story of a young girl evacuated to Yorkshire during the war who ends up seeing things not meant for her eyes. Its success is all the more striking as she has yet to have her novel reviewed by a national newspaper. She recently told the Guardian that the lack of reviews was a relief: “It would be very easy for a cynic to write it off in a few dismissive lines.”

Locke’s novel is striking in a different way. It’s a thriller – a genre that rarely makes to the finishing line of leading literary prizes. The Guardian’s reviewer described it as “a powerful and skilfully constructed conspiracy thriller – Chinatown without the air of despairing fatalism.” The New York Times called it an “atmospheric, richly convoluted” debut.

Locke, a screenwriter named after the 1971 upstate New York prison riot, is one of three American writers shortlisted. The other two are Moore and Kingsolver, the latter nominated for her sixth novel, The Lacuna, which moves between 1920s Mexico and the story of artists such as Frida Kahlo, and the US, focusing on the McCarthyite witch-hunts of artists. Her best-known work, The Poisonwood Bible, was shortlisted for the Orange in 1999.

Moore, best known for her short stories, is shorlisted for her third novel which was praised by Geoff Dyer in the Observer: “She’s on fire for 300 pages!”

The shortlist has been whittled down from a longlist of 20, with novelists including Sarah Waters and Andrea Levy falling by the wayside. To exclude Mantel, however, would have had literary prize observers falling off their breakfast bar stools. Her evocative doorstopper, telling the story of Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell, has already won her the Man Booker, and was shortlisted for the Costa novel of the year.

Roffey is shortlisted for her second novel about an English couple settling in Trinidad.

This year’s Orange jury is chaired by TV producer Daisy Goodwin. She said: “This shortlist achieves the near impossible of combining literary merit with sheer readability. With a thriller, historical novels that reflect our world back to us, and a tragicomedy about post-9/11 America, there is something here to challenge, amuse and enthral every kind of reader.”

The judges have chosen their six from the 129 novels that were originally put forward for the prize. Goodwin has commented already on how gruelling the process was. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy,” she told the Guardian last month. “There’s a lot of grimness out there.”

The shortlist was announced this morning at this year’s London Book Fair at Earl’s Court. The other judges were Rabbi Baroness Neuberger, journalists Miranda Sawyer and Alexandra Shulman and the novelist and critic Michele Roberts. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds