The Man Booker selection committee have named their 2017 winner, and it is George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
The novel, Saunders’ first, follows a single night in the life of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, when he buried his 11-year-old son in a Washington, D.C., cemetery. In the book, Lincoln’s son is joined by other haunted souls while trapped in the “bardo,” a Tibetan Buddhist term for limbo. Saunders flits between the echoes of history, including snippets of texts and letters, and the otherworldly in the dialogue-heavy narrative.
Saunders, a 58-year-old New York resident who was born in Texas, comes as the second American in a row to win the Man Booker Prize, which was first awarded in 1969 and only recently opened up to writers outside of Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth nations. Paul Beatty became the first American to win the award last year.
Known for his short stories, Saunders previously told Time he “was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about [Lincoln] entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instill the same reaction I’d had all those years ago.”
Lincoln in the Bardo was published by Bloomsbury, making this the third consecutive year an independent publisher has taken home the award. Bloomsbury previously won in 2010 (Howard Jacobson), 2000 (Margaret Atwood), and 1992 (Michael Ondaatje). There was much rejoicing in the Bloomsbury office at the news, as evidenced by a post on social media.
Lola Young, the chair of judges, said in a statement, “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.”
Many joined in the congratulatory messages on social media, including memoirist Mary Karr, publisher Vintage Books, and the New Yorker fiction department.
The news also comes on the heels of 1989 Man Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro taking home the Nobel Prize for literature.