Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It’s February 1862 and an eleven-year-old boy is dying, probably of typhoid fever. After his death, he is interred in a crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Unable to accept that he has lost his beloved son, the boy’s father enters the crypt on several occasions to hold the body and grieve. The boy’s name is Willie Lincoln and his father is Abraham, the sixteenth President of the United States.

According to author George Saunders this is a true story, reported in contemporary news accounts at the time, and is what inspired him to write Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. I don’t always get on well with Booker novels and I wasn’t at all sure whether it was a good idea for me to read this book, but it sounded so unusual and intriguing that when I saw it in the library I couldn’t resist.

The first thing to consider is the meaning of that word in the title – ‘bardo’. In Tibetan Buddhism, bardo is the transitional state between death and rebirth. It is portrayed in Saunders’ novel as a sort of limbo inhabited by the ghosts of people who either aren’t aware that they are dead or won’t admit to it, and for one reason or another have not yet moved on. This is where Willie Lincoln finds himself following his death and is unable to leave because his father is not ready to let go. The other spirits are worried about Willie – they know the bardo is no place for a child to linger – but they also have stories of their own, which slowly begin to unfold as the novel progresses.

The next thing – a very important thing – that I need to mention is the writing style, because Lincoln in the Bardo is not written in conventional prose. Instead, it takes the form of a cacophony of voices, all speaking up, giving their opinions, interrupting each other and completing each other’s sentences. It looks a bit daunting on the page, with short fragments of dialogue accompanied by the speaker’s name, but approaching it as if I were reading a play made it feel easier to follow. I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, but I think this particular novel would be a good one to listen to. Apparently the audio version has 166 narrators!

As well as the conversations taking place in the bardo, there are also some chapters made up of quotations from a selection of primary and secondary sources including letters, memoirs and academic accounts. These provide us with some background information on Abraham Lincoln and the period before and after Willie’s death. The sources looked authentic, but I later discovered that although some of them are real, others are fictional – and there is no easy way to tell which ones are which. This bothered me slightly, but probably won’t bother everyone! What I did like was the way Saunders uses these quotations to illustrate the unreliability of sources and the importance of looking at more than one account of the same event. For example, a chapter describing Lincoln’s appearance gives one source saying that his eyes are “gray-brown”, followed by another stating that they are “bluish-brown” and another simply “blue”.

I would say this was a love it or hate it type of book – except that for me it was a bit of both! There is no doubt that it’s wonderfully creative, imaginative and original, with a lot to admire and enjoy, but my initial feeling that this wasn’t really a book for me proved to be correct. I have never been much of a fan of experimental styles and structures; I find that I get distracted from the story and am unable to become fully absorbed in the way that I prefer. Maybe for that reason, I didn’t find the book as emotional as I would have expected given the subject – although other readers have described it as moving and heartbreaking, so it’s probably just me. I’m glad I read it though, as I would have been curious about it forever otherwise! If you’ve read it too, I would love to hear what you thought.

14 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

  1. Café Society says:

    I’ve been wondering about recommending this for one of my book groups, if only because it would definitely provoke discussion. It hasn’t come my way from the library yet so I think I may download a sample and see just how different the narrative style is. If it is too extreme it might alienate some of our members a step too far.

    • Helen says:

      Well, I found it very extreme and different, but I accept that it’s not the sort of book I usually read and other readers will probably get on with it much better than I did. It would certainly provoke some fascinating discussions, though!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I have been reluctant to dive into this one. I can handle a bit of experimental writing but don’t make a practice of reading it often. Your review is very explicit about how Saunders put the book together and I thank you for that. Still reluctant though. I salute you for giving it a try.

  3. cirtnecce says:

    I think that sentence of your’s love it or hate it captures what I have been hearing about this book. I have had friends gushing all over it and others who told me not to waste even a minute on it. Additionally, I have never had much good fortune with Bookers with a few exceptions and its unique narrative, while innovative is not something that is not grabbing my attention. May be I will read it one day but as of now I am simply not tempted and there are other books which are far more interesting. I agree with Judy, brave of you to attempt it , despite not being your genre!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this book seems to have really divided opinion. I don’t regret reading it but I didn’t particularly enjoy it either, so I don’t think you’re missing much. There are plenty of other books to read, after all!

  4. Carmen says:

    I liked this book very much. The reason I decided to read it before it became a critics’ darling was because I have read that Abraham Lincoln had psychic experiences during his life; he even foresaw his own death, and the manner of it, in a dream. When I read it, I didn’t pay attention so much as who said what, but rather at what was said, and that helped my understanding and accepting of the unusual structure. I approached to it like a play. It helps to visualize a group conversation as well.

    You have captured in your review the unusual of the story and writing structure, as well as what makes the book a love it or hate it kind of novel. I know it isn’t for everyone, but for once I agree with books’ critics everywhere.

    • Helen says:

      That’s interesting – I didn’t know that about Abraham Lincoln! I really wanted to love this book, but it just wasn’t for me. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. It definitely helped to think of it as a play or a conversation.

  5. buriedinprint says:

    Perhaps because we are so accustomed to fiction written according to a set of rules, it can’t help but feel awkward when someone demands that we participate differently? I suspect that one has to read more widely in experimental fiction to feel more comfortable with it, much as one needs to get comfy with any other kind of different writing (poetry, science writing). And that’s never easy because we are wired to return to the familiar, the known. And of course there’s no shortage to good books on our TBRs!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’m sure you’re right. People who read a lot of experimental fiction will probably feel a lot more comfortable with this particular book than I did. I do prefer to stick to the kind of books I know I like, but it’s still good to step out of my comfort zone now and then!

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