George Saunders wins Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo

The £50,000 prize recognizes the best book published in English available in the U.K.
George Saunders is the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. (Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

The £50,000 ($81,625 Cdn) prize recognizes the best book published in English available in the U.K. 

Lincoln in the Bardo, which is Saunders' debut novel, is a surprising and complex story set in a graveyard where Lincoln's 11-year-old son has just been laid to rest. It's 1862 — just one year into the American Civil War and Lincoln's presidency. Saunders conjures up a world of ghosts, set against actual historical material and a country in crisis.

"The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative," jury chair Baroness Lola Young said in a press release. "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."

When accepting the award, Saunders said the book's style may be complex, but the question he posed at its heart was 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 58-year-old author is an acclaimed short story writer who won the Rathbones Folio Prize Folio Prize in 2014 for his darkly funny story collection Tenth of December. He is a former oil industry engineer who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.

George Saunders spoke with Eleanor Wachtel for an episode of Writers & Company in April 2017. You can listen to that interview below:

Eleanor sits down with American writer George Saunders onstage at the Toronto Reference Library. The master of the short story talks about writing his first novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo", which unfolds in a graveyard over a single night in 1862. 53:28

"When you're reading a book, you know how so many boxes in your mind come alive," Saunders said in the interview. "That's an incredible state of consciousness that makes us wiser and kinder and more engaged."

Founded in 1969, the award was previously only open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. It was expanded in 2014 to include all English-language authors. It is named for the financial services firm Man Group PLC, which sponsors the prize.

The remaining shortlisted books were History of Wolves by American Emily Fridlund, Elmet by U.K. writer Fiona Mozley, Autumn by U.K. writer Ali Smith, 4321 by American writer Paul Auster and Exit West by U.K.-Pakistan author Mohsin Hamid.

This year's award was judged by Baroness Lola Young, literary critic Lila Azam Zangeneh, novelist Sarah Hall, artist Tom Phillips and writer Colin Thubron.

No Canadians were nominated this year. 144 titles were submitted for consideration for the 2017 prize. 

It is the second year in a row an American has won. In 2016, Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for The Sellout.

— With files from the Associated Press

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