He beat five other finalists with his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo
US author George Saunders wins 2017 Man Booker Prize
American author George Saunders won the prestigious Man Booker Prize on Tuesday with Lincoln in the Bardo, praised as an "utterly original novel" by judges at the London ceremony.
Saunders beat five other finalists to the prize for his first full-length novel, which uses the accounts of hundreds of narrators to weave a tale around the death of President Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie.
It is the second year in a row an American has won the 50,000 pound ($66,000) prize, which was opened to US authors in 2014.
The book is based on a real visit Lincoln made in 1862 to the body of his son in a Washington cemetery.
By turns witty, bawdy, poetic and unsettling, Lincoln in the Bardo juxtaposes the real events of the US Civil War - through passages from historians both real and fictional - with a chorus of otherworldly characters who are all dead, but unwilling or unable to let go of life.
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."
She added: "The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative.”
Saunders was awarded the prize by Prince Charles' wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during a ceremony at London's medieval Guildhall.
58-year-old Saunders is 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, he had been bookies' favourite to win the Man Booker, which usually brings the winning novelist a huge boost in sales and profile.
The five other finalists were: New Yorker Paul Auster's quadruple coming-of-age story 4321; US 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 Elmet, debut British novelist Fiona Mozley's novel about a fiercely independent family under threat.
The prize was founded in 1969 and until 2013 limited to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. In 2016, the winner was an American, Paul Beatty, with 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."
She added that the five jurors met for almost five hours on 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."