Texas-born author George Saunders, known for his short story collections, is the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his first full-length novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
Saunders’ novel focuses on a night in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln buried his 12-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid fever, in a Washington, D.C. cemetery. From there, the novel builds on the factual to tell the story of ghosts who are unable to recognize that they’re dead. The ghosts dawdle around the graveyard in a “Bardo,” a Tibetan term for a state of “transition,” the 58-year-old author told the NewsHour in March.
“They’re stuck,” Saunders said of the ghosts that populate his story. “They’re stuck kind of in the condition they were in at the moment of death. So, if they were worried about something or feeling shortchanged or in love or in hate, they suddenly are in this other place, and desperately trying to stay there, which they do by repeating their grievances.”
“Lincoln in the Bardo” doesn’t have any one, designated narrator. The voices that weave through the story were assembled from snippets of real and made-up historians, a narrative choice that made for a book that the chair of judges Lola Young said in a statement was “utterly original.”
“This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy,” she said.
Sanders, upon accepting the award, said it was a “wonderful honor,” The Guardian reported.
“If you haven’t noticed, we live in a strange time,” he told the audience. “So the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple: Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.”
Saunders is the second American ever to win the prize after author Paul Beatty, who was awarded the prize by the U.K. judging panel last year for his novel “The Sellout.” The rules for the prize were expanded before Beatty’s win to allow writers of any nationality whose books were published in the U.K. to be considered. The decision was met with some backlash. A second consecutive win for an American author will add more fuel to the criticism that the award has become too Americanized.
But Young addressed the question of Saunders’ nationality, saying that the panel’s vote was unanimous after five hours of deliberation.
“We don’t look at the nationality of the writer. Honestly it’s not an issue for us. We’re solely concerned with the book, what that book is telling us,” the Guardian quoted her as saying.
Saunders’ book beat out five other book finalists, two of whom were also written by American authors. Saunders will receive a cash prize of 50,000 pounds, or more than $66,000, along with a trophy and a special edition of the book.