A book about a grieving Abraham Lincoln has won the UK’s biggest literary award.
This year’s Man Booker prize for fiction originally written in English has been awarded to George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo. He’s the second American to win a prize once given only to books published in the Commonwealth.
Lincoln in the Bardo is about the ghost of Willie Lincoln, the third son of the 16th US president, who died at age 11. He descends into a crypt, where a chatty cast of the undead watches on as the president visits his departed son. “Bardo” refers to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the transitional state between death and rebirth.
“It is a perilous moment, the sort that comes along every so often, where it seems the country is listing and about to tip and only steady hands can right the ship. Survival depends not only on the captain, but on all aboard,” wrote author Colson Whitehead in a review that drew parallels to present-day America, adding, “In describing Lincoln’s call to action, Saunders provides an appeal for his limbo denizens—for citizens everywhere—to step up and join the cause.”
At an event in New York in February, Saunders said he’d been thinking about the nugget for the story for 20 years, and had been too intimidated by the thought of writing about the legendary president. “Then a couple years ago, I thought, ‘Man, you’re not getting any younger, and on your own gravestone you don’t want it to say, ‘Avoided the thing he most wanted to do.'”
The book is Saunders’ first novel, published in the US by Random House and in the UK by Bloomsbury Publishing. For his award, he receives £50,000 (about US $66,000). This is the third year books first published in the US have been considered for the prize, and the second year in a row it has gone to an American.