Writer George Saunders was awarded the Man Booker Prize for fiction in London on Tuesday for his novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln in a graveyard mourning the death of his son, surrounded by ghosts.
Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall presented the award trophy to Saunders in a ceremony that was broadcast live on the BBC News channel. The award comes with a $66,000 prize and a reputation for boosting book sales in Britain.
Previous winners who have had popular bestsellers include Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje.
Up until 2017, Saunders was known for writing satirical short fiction of great empathy, (a near impossible combination), for which he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2006. “Lincoln in the Bardo” is his first novel.
“I really loved writing it, and I miss it,” he told me when I interviewed him at the L.A. Times Festival of Books in April.
“The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative,” Lola, Baroness Young, the judges’ chairwoman, said in a statement. “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.”
In the race for the Man Booker, Saunders defeated fellow shortlisted novelists Paul Auster (“4 3 2 1”), Emily Fridlund (“History of Wolves”), Mohsin Hamid (“Exit West”), Fiona Mozley (“Elmet”) and Ali Smith (“Autumn”).
Saunders is only the second American to win the prize — but Americans have only been eligible for three of the last five years. The first year that the Man Booker expanded its eligibility, the award went to “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James, who was born and raised in Jamaica and now lives and teaches in America.
Saunders’ win, while predicted by oddsmakers, is likely to cause disruptions in the British literary community. Authors from the U.K. and Ireland have been swept aside in a prize that used to be their domain.
That’s exactly what concerned some critics when the Man Booker allowed writers from around the world to contend for the prize. Would British and Irish writers be able to find a place? What would that mean for the literature of the U.K. and Ireland? Perhaps the Man Booker prize will reconsider its eligibility in the future.