American author George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, a high profile literary award for his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo”, a fictional account of US President Abraham Lincoln burying his young son and also a polyphonic symphony of a novel about restless souls lacking aim in the afterlife.
In his acceptance speech, Saunders, 58 noted that “we live in a strange time”, adding the book’s style may be complex but the question posed at its heart is simple – Do we respond to uncertain times with fear and division or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and try to respond with love? The author said he resisted telling the story of Lincoln, an American icon, for 20 years. But the novel, which took four years to write, turned out to be pointedly timely in a divided United States.
Saunders was the second consecutive American writer to win the prize after the rules were changed in 2014 to allow authors of any book written in English and published in the UK to compete.
His novel, set in 1862, a year into the American Civil War, is a blend of historical accounts and imaginative fiction, which sees Lincolns’s son Willie, who died in the White House at age 11, in Bardo a Tibetan form of purgatory. The book is based on a real visit President Abraham Lincoln made in 1862 to the body of his 11-year-old son Willie at an unsettling, Lincoln in the Bardo juxtaposes events from Lincoln’s life and the US Civil War through passages from historians both real and fictional with a chorus of otherworldly characters who are dead but unwilling or unable to let go for life. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo is the transition state between death and rebirth.
The judging panel led by author and member of Britain’s House of Lords Lola Young praised the deeply moving book saying it was utterly original.
Saunders was presented with his award by the Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Britain’s Prince William.
Saunders is the second American in a row to win the prize, founded in 1969 and until 2013 limited to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. Last year, American Paul Beatty became the first American to win the award for his novel, The Sellout, a biting satire on race relations in the United States.
Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel by the 58th-year-old Saunders, an acclaimed short story writer who won the Folio Prize in 2014 for his darkly funny story collection Tenth of December.
A former oil industry engineer who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University in New York state, Saunders is probably best known outside literary circles for a commencement speech he gave in 2013 with the key message “Try to be kinder.” It went viral on the Internet, became an animated cartoon and was published as a book.
Other previous winners have included this year’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.
The award was previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe or countries in the British Commonwealth. The winner receives a 50,000-pound cash prize.