The Yellow Birds, which opens with the line "The war tried to kill us in the spring", is one of three novels chosen by judges for this year's shortlist, alongside Scottish writer Kerry Hudson's Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, the story of a childhood in council flats and B&Bs, and American novelist Chad Harbach's highly acclaimed debut, The Art of Fielding, about a talented baseball player.
Judges headed by Guardian Review editor, Lisa Allardice, also chose two non-fiction titles for their shortlist: Channel 4 international editor Lindsey Hilsum's non-fiction account of the Libyan revolution, Sandstorm, and the Pulitzer prize-winning New Yorker journalist Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an account of the time she spent getting to know the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum.
"It's a very strong list this year," said Allardice, who is joined on the judging panel by authors Ahdaf Soueif, Kate Summerscale, William Dalrymple and Jeanette Winterson, and Guardian deputy editor, Katharine Viner. "We've got a fictional account of the war in Iraq, and a fictional account of growing up in poverty in the UK, alongside non-fictional accounts of growing up in a Mumbai slum, and the conflict in Libya. It's very interesting to see the different ways writers choose to approach their material. The Mumbai book reads almost like a novel, Boo is so deeply embedded in her environment, while Kevin Powers has chosen to fictionalise his obviously first-hand and deeply personal experience of serving in Iraq. It's a very raw book in subject matter and in some places in style, but the powerful authenticity of such a harrowing experience really comes across."
Titles including Patrick Flanery's South Africa-set debut novel, Absolution, Susan Cain's Quiet, a look at the "power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking", and Mary Costello's short-story collection, The China Factory, all missed out on a place on the shortlist. So did Sarah Jackson's first poetry collection Pelt, which made it on to the longlist after being nominated by Guardian readers.
Allardice called The Art of Fielding – bought for an advance in the US of $650,000 (£406,000) – "extraordinarily assured for a first novel", and said that while Hudson's debut follows "a familiar coming-of-age narrative arc of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, it's written with unusual energy and style". Hilsum's account of the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, meanwhile, is "a vivid on-the-ground view of one of the key international developments of the last few years, written by an experienced news reporter".
"It's a very exciting list," said Allardice. "Across fiction and non-fiction, it crosses the globe and addresses many of the major issues of the day."
The winner, who will receive £10,000, will be announced on 29 November. Last year, The Emperor of All Maladies, a "biography" of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, won the prize, joining former winners including Zadie Smith, Alexander Masters and Jonathan Safran Foer.