American author George Saunders won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction Tuesday for Lincoln in the Bardo, a polyphonic symphony of a novel about restless souls adrift in the afterlife.
It is the second year in a row an American has won the 50,000 pound ($66,000) prize, which was opened to U.S. authors in 2014.
The book is based on a real visit President Abraham Lincoln made in 1862 to the body of his 11-year-old son Willie at a Washington cemetery. It is narrated by a chorus of characters who are all dead, but unwilling or unable to let go of life.
By turns witty, bawdy, poetic and unsettling, Lincoln in the Bardo juxtaposes the real events of the U.S. Civil War — through passages from historians both real and fictional — with a chorus of otherworldly characters male and female, young and old. In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is the transition state between death and rebirth.
Baroness Lola Young, who chaired the Booker judging panel, said the novel "stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling, the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost-dead souls."
Saunders was awarded the prize by Prince Charles' wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during a ceremony at London's medieval Guildhall.
Accepting his trophy, 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 author said he resisted telling the story of Lincoln, an American icon, for 20 years. But the novel, which took four years to write, turned out to be pointedly timely at a divided time for the United States.
Saunders said Lincoln had "a quiet, confident generosity of spirit."
"He underwent, I think, a kind of spiritual growth spurt that we don't see very often," outgrowing the "lazy, racist attitudes" he was raised with, the author said.
"His compassion and his heart kept growing out even as his own life was becoming more and more difficult," Saunders said.
"Contrast that with the current administration that seems intent on shrinking the commonwealth of compassion until we can only care about people who are exactly like us. It's a complete eradication of the American ideal."
Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel by the 58-year-old Saunders, an acclaimed short story writer who won the Folio Prize in 2014 for his darkly funny story collection Tenth of December.
A former oil industry engineer who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University in New York state, Saunders is probably best known outside literary circles for a commencement speech he gave in 2013 with the key message "Try to be kinder." It went viral on the internet, became an animated cartoon and was published as a book.
He had been bookies' favorite to win the Man Booker, which usually brings the winning novelist a huge boost in sales and profile.
Saunders beat five other finalists: New Yorker Paul Auster's quadruple coming-of-age story 4321; U.S. writer Emily Fridlund's story of a Midwest teenager, History of Wolves; Scottish author Ali Smith's Brexit-themed Autumn; British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid's migration story Exit West; and British writer Fiona Mozley's debut novel Elmet about a fiercely independent family under threat.
Saunders is the second American in a row to win the prize, founded in 1969 and until 2013 limited to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. The 2016 winner was Paul Beatty's The Sellout.
The move to admit all English-language writers spurred fears among some British writers and publishers that Americans would come to dominate a prize whose previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel.
Young said the judges "don't look at the nationality of the writer. I can say that hand on heart — it's not an issue for us. The sole concern is the book."
Prize organizers said 30 percent of the 144 books submitted by publishers for consideration this year were American, a figure slightly down from last year.
Young said the five jurors met for almost five hours Tuesday to choose the winner, finally agreeing unanimously on Saunders.
"I'm not going to pretend it was easy," she said. "We didn't have any major meltdowns at all. But we did have quite fierce debates."