George Saunders’s surreal, experimental first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, marking the second year in a row that the prize has gone to an American author.
The novel unfolds in a cemetery in 1862, where a grieving Abraham Lincoln visits the crypt that holds the body of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever. At the graveyard, Willie’s spirit is joined by a garrulous, motley community of ghosts who exist in the liminal state between life and death. At times, the narrative feels disjointed and jarring, with dialogue among the ghosts, interspersed with scraps of historical research and snippets of contemporary news accounts that Saunders gathered while doing research.
At a news conference in London on Tuesday, Lola Young, the chair of judges, said that the novel was “unique” and “stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling; the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost dead souls, not quite dead souls, this other world.”
By awarding the prize to Saunders, the judges will likely face a renewed backlash from critics who have complained that the prize has become Americanized. Last year, Paul Beatty became the first American to win when he received the prize for “The Sellout,” a dark satire about race and the legacy of slavery and segregation in America. This year, three of the six finalists were American, which prompted another round of criticism that emerging British and Commonwealth writers were being overlooked.
Speaking on behalf of the judges, Young dismissed the notion that Americans have colonized Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
“We don’t look at the nationality of the writer,” she said. “We’re solely concerned with the book, with what that book is telling us.”
Until recently, the Man Booker, which was first awarded in 1969, was restricted to novels written by authors from Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth nations. In 2014, the contest was opened to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Past winners include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, V.S. Naipaul, and Hilary Mantel.