For the second time in its 49-year history, an American writer has won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. George Saunders, 58, a celebrated short-story writer from upstate New York, received the award for his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” The Man Booker, which recognizes literary fiction written in English, was presented in London on Tuesday evening by Camellia, Duchess of Cornwall.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is a formally inventive novel set in a Washington, D.C., cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie lies in crypt after dying of typhoid during the first year of the Civil War. A vast chorus of ghosts tell their stories and observe as a grieving President Lincoln pays a secret nighttime visit to the cemetery, an incident that actually happened and captured Saunders’ imagination. In her review for Newsday, Marion Winik called the novel “strange, profound, melancholy and often silly. . . . Historical fiction will never be the same.”
The Man Booker Prize comes with an award of about $66,000 and typically provides a big boost to a book’s sales. Historically awarded to novels from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, the prize was opened to American authors — and all writers from the English-speaking world — at the end of 2013. Last year, American Paul Beatty became the first American to win, for his novel “The Sellout.” The expansion of the prize has been controversial in the United Kingdom, and this year’s award will surely fuel the controversy further.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” was selected by a panel of five judges from a list of six finalists that included two other Americans, Paul Auster (“4 3 2 1”) and Emily Fridlund (“History of Wolves.”)
Among the past recipients of the prize, awarded annually since 1969, are Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Hillary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro, recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.