LONDON: US author George Saunders became on Tuesday only the second American writer to win Britain’s renowned Man Booker Prize, which was awarded for his first full-length novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”.
Judges for the prestigious English-language literary award praised as “utterly original” the book that chronicles the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie using the accounts of hundreds of narrators.
“The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative,” said Lola Young, chair of the judging panel, in announcing the prize at a ceremony in London.
Saunders, 58, described the award as a “great honour, which I hope to live up to with the rest of my work, for the rest of my life.”
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 a Washington cemetery. By turns witty, bawdy, poetic and unsettling, Lincoln in the Bardo juxtaposes events from Lincoln’s life and the U.S. 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 of life.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is the transition state between death and rebirth.
Saunders was awarded the prize by Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during a ceremony at London’s medieval Guildhall.
In his acceptance speech, Saunders said 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.
“We live in a strange time,” he told the audience. “In the US now we’re hearing a lot about the need to protect culture. Well, this tonight is culture.”
This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist pitted three US and three British writers against one another.
The award, launched in 1969, was only open to writers from Commonwealth states until it began permitting authors from other English-speaking countries in 2014.
Last year Paul Beatty became the first American to win the award for his novel “The Sellout”.
Saunders was the British bookmakers’ favourite ahead of the announcement on Tuesday.
In a lengthy and varied writing career, he has penned award-winning short story collections, essays, illustrated fables and a bestselling children’s book, as well as many pieces of journalism.
In 2006, he was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship, while in 2009 he received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.