It's a wonderful thing that George Saunders has won this year's Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. Wonderful because this is the sort of book that should win a significant and influential prize such as the Booker - challenging, original, ventriloquial, engaging, audacious and, ultimately, deeply compassionate.
And it matters not a jot that he is American nor that he is the second US writer in a row to win. What really matters is that many more people will now read a very fine book.
Saunders has long been admired for his classy short stories, so his first novel was bound to be something special. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the world between death and the afterlife, a sort of limbo, if you like, before the dead finally depart this world of ours. As a concept, the Bardo is from Tibetan Buddhism; Saunders is a Nyingma Buddhist
It is 1862 and Willie, Abraham Lincoln's beloved third son, has died. On the night of his funeral, Lincoln's grief is such that he visits the cemetery in which his boy rests, to hold his corpse in his arms and grieve.
There he is observed by a host of others who, for one reason or another, cannot pass on to wherever they are supposed to go and are marooned in their coffins, their sick boxes. It is through the many voices of these presences that Saunders narrates the book.
Interspersed with those voices and their stories - funny, tragic, banal - are snippets of contemporary commentary on Lincoln, his family, the Civil War and the US. But here's one of Saunders' strokes of brilliance, some of these are real, taken from books and pamphlets of the day, others fabrications.
Lincoln's response to Willie's death is, of course, a personal, intimate one but at the same time it echoes the wider, national grief at the huge numbers of deaths in the war, something that Lincoln is deeply conscious of.
It does take a while to get a handle on the form Saunders has created for his fiction; some readers may be inclined to toss the book aside. But, trust me, it's worth persevering with. When Saunders visited Australia for the Sydney Writers' Festival this year, he spoke with eloquence, insight and modesty about his work; anyone who saw him will be thrilled by his win.
And unlike so much fiction around, Lincoln in the Bardo rewards an immediate second read.