For the second time in two years, an American has won one of the most prestigious global awards in literature. At a ceremony in London on Tuesday night, George Saunders accepted the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel. “The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative,” said Baroness Lola Young, the chairman of the judging panel. Lincoln in the Bardo, she noted, “is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.”
The book is a dazzling and experimental ghost story set in 1862. Told in fragments of real and invented historical accounts, interspersed with script-like scenes of dialogue and first-person stories, it explores the death of Willie Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, who died of typhoid fever during the second year of the Civil War. Saunders, a Tibetan Buddhist, imagines Willie’s experiences in the “bardo,” a Buddhist plane between the worlds of the living and the dead where Willie communes with other deceased souls, and where he watches his father visit his entombed body.
In a year in which writers and artists have wrestled with the question of how to tackle the increasing prominence of hate in the political sphere, the Man Booker judges seemed to respond to Saunders’s humanizing portrait of a leader felled by grief. Ali Smith’s Autumn, one of the five other novels shortlisted for the prize, is set in the aftermath of Brexit, and considers the fragility of national identity as well as the redeeming power of art. Lincoln in the Bardo, though, ends with not just hope, but transcendence. Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, Saunders described the process of creating the novel: “There is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you ... and also beyond you—something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.”