British writer Jim Crace's final novel is up against two potential record-breakers for this year's Man Booker Prize.
Crace, 67, the oldest writer on the shortlist, has said that Harvest will be his last novel.
He is up against 27-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton, in contention for The Luminaries, a book described as a "Kiwi Twin Peaks" and despite its 823-pages like getting "into a bath".
If Catton wins - she will be 28 when the ceremony takes place - she will be the youngest ever winner of the literary prize, beating current record-holder Ben Okri, 32.
At just 101 pages, Irish writer Colm Toibin's The Testament Of Mary could also smash records - for the shortest book to win the Man Booker Prize For Fiction.
Judges said that the book, which features the mother of Jesus mourning angrily years after her son's crucifixion, had "all the qualities of a good novel".
"On one level it's a reworking of the gospels as seen through the eyes of Jesus's mother left behind to mourn him after the crucifixion. On another level it's a story about the relationship between any mother and any son as that son grows up and grows away from her, and it's a story about the power of stories to make sense of life, to write and rewrite the past," judges said.
They praised the book by Toibin, 58, who has been nominated for the Booker twice previously, for ranging over a lifetime in just over 100 pages.
A Waterstones's spokesman said that "the question of 'what is a novel?'" was raised by the inclusion of the novel - which "makes Julian Barnes' 160 page The Sense Of An Ending look, if not like War And Peace, then at least Crime And Punishment."
Six writers - four of them women - are in the running for the £50,000 prize, announced on October 15, which was won last year by Hilary Mantel.
Crace's book, Harvest, the story of a village which comes under threat, was inspired when the author got a glimpse of fields on a train journey he took in frustration after spending two years trying to write a novel that he could not get to work.
The Hertfordshire-born author, who was shortlisted for the Booker in 1997 for Quarantine, has said that Harvest, which came together in just six months, will be his final novel.
"Retiring from writing is to avoid the inevitable bitterness which a writing career is bound to deliver as its end product, in almost every case," he has said.
There is one debut novel on the shortlist - We Need New Names by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, 31.
Her book, which judges said "stood out", tells the story of Darling, who lives in a shanty called Paradise.
The other shortlisted books include The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, 46, a Pulitzer prize winner who lives in the United States but also holds UK citizenship.
Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, 57, a Canadian-American writer who was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest, is also in the running.
Judges said her book was "a Zen novel if such a thing is possible".
Writer Robert Macfarlane, who is chairing the judging panel, said all the books on the "exceptionally varied and international shortlist" managed to "extend the power and possibility of form".
He added: "These novels are all about the strange ways in which people are brought together and the painful ways in which they are held apart."
Macfarlane said: "It is a shortlist that shows the English language novel to be a form of world literature. It crosses continents, joins countries and spans centuries."
He said the judging process was "peaceful", "the carpet remained unbloodied" and there were no "walk-outs or punch-ups".
Bookmaker William Hill installed Catton's The Luminaries as favourite to win, followed by Crace's Harvest, while Ladbrokes made Harvest the favourite.
Broadcaster Martha Kearney, one of the judges, said that Harvest was "one of the very first novels that we read but it's a testament of the power of this book that through the long and sometimes arduous hours of reading, it continued to haunt us all".
The book charts the destruction of an English village and its way of life after a trio of outsiders put up camp on its borders.
Kearney added: "When you think about the eruption of strangers into this enclosed world, the resentment caused by these outsiders, you begin to get a glimpse of some of the troubling debates in modern life."
Foyles' web editor Jonathan Ruppin said that if Harvest wins, it would be "overdue recognition for a writer appreciated far more overseas than by British readers."
Judges said that there was a "sheer intellectual fizz across the whole list" for the prize, now in its 45th year.
Macfarlane denied that the books on the shortlist were depressing, saying: "They are full of joy. They are about people being brought together and also being brought apart."
He dismissed concerns that female-only prizes may now be redundant with four women on their shortlist, saying: "The more book prizes there are, the better."