The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Narrated by a chorus of voices, George Saunders’ startlingly original novel is a thrilling exploration of death, grief and the possibilities of life.

February, 1862. Two days after his death, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln is laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. All that night, his father Abraham paces the darkness of the graveyard, shattered with grief. Meanwhile, Willie is trapped in a state of limbo between the dead and the living - drawn to his father with whom he can no longer communicate, existing in a ghostly world populated by the recently passed and the long dead.

The Man Booker Prize 2017
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George Saunders

George Saunders

About the Author

George Saunders is the author of nine books, including the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Booker Prize.
More about George Saunders

George Saunders on writing

‘When I teach at Syracuse, I’m trying to tell my students that the first move that most of us make when we write, is we put up a front. We’re trying to imitate the beloved writers that we’ve known. That doesn’t actually work, even if you imitate Rushdie really, really well, you’re not Rushdie. Go ahead and do that and you’ll be frustrated because you’ll feel that you’re a light version of that writer. And at some critical moment, you’ll start to really squirm because the things you actually know in your life aren’t showing up on the page. So at that moment I will say to them, “How are you charming in real life? Is that there? If you’re a funny person, are you being funny? If you’re somebody who is a great listener, is your great listening making it onto the page?” And that’s really the moment where a young writer will sometimes make a leap. And then instead of keeping your best gifts outside the door, you let them in and you’re just yourself. The problem is, you can’t simply decide, “Oh, what are my charms? I’ll make a list.” It’s much more intuitive and it takes a lot of rewriting to get there. But it starts with a feeling of frustration, that what you really know or care about is not showing up in your work.’

Read more in our podcast interview with George Saunders

2017 Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders

What the judges said

‘For us, it really stood out because of its innovation, it’s very different styling, the way it, almost paradoxically, brought to life these almost dead souls in this other world. There was this juxtaposition of the very personal tragedy of Abraham Lincoln and the death of his very young son next to his public life, as the person who really instigated the American civil war. You’ve got this individual death, very close and personal; you’ve got this much wider issue of the political scenario and the death of hundreds of thousands of young men; and then you’ve got this weird state across the cemetery, with these souls who are not quite ready to be fully dead, as it were, trying to work out some of the things that plagued them during their lives.’

What the critics said

Alex Preston, The Financial Times

Lincoln in the Bardo is part-historical novel, part-carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year […] Saunders presents Willie’s death as a turning point for Lincoln — will he be able to move on from his grief, to draw on it as a source of strength in the battle ahead, or will it crush him, the acuity of his own loss meaning that he sees Willie in every dead soldier?’

Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

‘The supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times — the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning — but their voices gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition.’

Christian Lorentzen, Vulture

‘It’s a premise loaded with pathos but thin on dramatic tension. Of course, there’s the noise of history just outside the frame, the war raging beyond the Potomac. But what provides the novel with its action, with most of its characters, with its moral weight, is the bardo itself. There are rules that govern this spiritual interzone, but in effect it’s a free range for Saunders’s imagination […] Whether Willie Lincoln will leave the bardo is something of a MacGuffin, however. What, then, is this novel about? In whole, it’s Saunders’s Old American Book of the Dead.’

Hari Kunzru, The Guardian

‘This cacophony, and the grotesquerie of the deformed spirits, lends the novel a texture that is superficially unlike the work that has made Saunders popular, stories that often play off the tension between a casual vernacular voice and a surreal situation. Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a blend of Victorian gothic with one of the more sfx-heavy horror franchises.’

Charles Baxter, The New York Review of Books

Lincoln in the Bardo doesn’t resemble any of his previous books apart from the thematic concerns already noted, nor does it really resemble anyone else’s novel, present or past. In fact, I have never read anything like it […] It is as if Saunders had somehow grafted the oral history mode of George Plimpton’s book on Edie Sedgwick onto the historical facts surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie and then decided to extend that technique into the afterlife.’