American author George Saunders has won the Man Booker prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a polyphonous meditation on death, grief and American history.
Saunders, widely lauded for his short stories, was considered the favorite to win the award. His novel centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie and the night that Lincoln reportedly spent in the graveyard, devastated by his grief and lingering by his son’s body.
In the book, Saunders weaves fragments of historical documents (both authentic and imagined) with the voices of ghosts trapped in the graveyard with young Willie, watching in wonder at the strength of his father’s love. The devastating toll of the Civil War is the backdrop for the scene of very particular loss.
Lola Young, the chair of the panel of judges that awarded the Booker Prize, called the novel “utterly original,” praising the narrative as “witty, intelligent, and deeply moving.”
In February, Saunders told NPR that he carried the idea for the novel around with him for 20 years — although he wasn’t sure it would be a novel at all.
“Four years ago, I was like, ‘Jeez, this has been bothering me all these years, maybe it’s time to give it a try,’ ” he said. “And I kind of almost had a contract with this book. Kind of like, don’t bloat up on me — be a story if you can be a story. If you can be a nice paragraph, that’s fine. So I kind of kept it on a short leash, but it just kept growing, so I finally said, ‘OK, you are what you are.’ ”
Saunders explained that the “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan concept for a sort of transitional zone — a space between death and whatever comes after, in the world of the novel.
This is the second year in a row that an American has taken home the prize — in a year when U.S. authors made up 50 percent of the short list.
The Man Booker, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature, has been awarded annually since 1969. It comes with a £50,000 (nearly $66,000) cash prize and is generally associated with a substantial boost in sales for the winning book.
The award was originally reserved only for writers from the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth (countries that were once part of the British empire), but four years ago, the prize was opened up to Americans.
Last year, the prize went to Paul Beatty for The Sellout. It was the first time the Man Booker had been awarded to an American.