History at the heart of the Man Booker prize winner

george saunders

Acclaimed American short story writer George Saunders has become the second American to win the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The £50 000 (about R850 000) prize was presented to him at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall by the Duchess of Cornwall last night (October 17).

The judges described the book as “utterly original” and “deeply moving”.

Baroness Young, chair of the 2017 judging panel, said: “The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative. 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.”

Saunders, 58, who lives in New York, was one of six shortlisted authors for the award: British writers Ali Smith and Fiona Mozley, Americans Paul Auster and Emily Fridlund, and British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid.

Lincoln in the Bardo, published by Bloomsbury, is set in a Washington graveyard over a night, as President Lincoln grieves for his 11-year-old son Willie who has died of typhoid. Tibetan Buddhists believe that when people die, their souls enter the bardo, a place from where they either ascend to nirvana or heaven, or go back to earth to inhabit another body and start the whole cycle of life all over again.

Usually children pass through the bardo fairly quickly, but his father’s grief causes Willie to linger.

After the prize was awarded at the Guildhall, Saunders said: “Thank you for this great honour which I hope to live up to with the rest of my work, for the rest of my life.”

Later, at a press conference, Saunders said it might sound pathetic for writers to need validation: “ Maybe you shouldn’t need it but I definitely do.

“So when someone that I respect approves my work or when I get grouped with a bunch of writers like these wonderful talents, my opinion of myself improves a little bit and the next book has a little more courage in it.”

Reviewers have described Lincoln in the Bardo as “initially rather off-putting”, but worth persevering with.

Shortly after the book was published in March Hari Kunzru wrote in the Guardian: “Lincoln in the Bardo is a performance of great formal daring. It perhaps won’t be to everyone’s taste, but …it stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.”


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