05 January 2018

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was the buzz book of 2017 and now I understand why. It's essentially the story of President Abraham Lincoln's grief at the tragic passing of his son Willie to typhoid fever and is different to any book I've read before.

The historical novel is written in an entirely original format and the story is told in two alternating methods or styles. The first being a collection of snippets from a variety of historical sources (referenced at the end), while the second appears as observations and conversations from ghosts in the cemetery where Willie's remains are interred.

I've read other epistolary novels - where the book is made by bringing together letters, diary excerpts and so on - but this was so much more. Both methods took some getting used to, but ultimately produced an entirely new reading experience for me. I expect this literary format and writing style will be emulated by writers in the years and decades ahead in an attempt to recreate the magic on the page.

The majority of the story takes place in the bardo; a Tibetan term for the Buddhist state between death and rebirth, a kind of purgatory or limbo. The ghost characters don't realise they're dead, and ignore the clues - calling their coffins a 'sick-box' and yearning to get back to their lives. Slowly Willie's presence begins to change their outlook and the entire cemetery is affected by what happens, courtesy of Lincoln's love for his son.

President Lincoln's grief and loss were palpable and the observations from history and supernatural characters moving. I can't begin to imagine the level of research Saunders conducted into Abraham Lincoln and the civil war in order to collect and bring those excerpts together to tell this story, but it's impressive to say the least.

This is a book about grief and the afterlife as much as it is about love, and I understand why Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

2 comments:

Brona Joy said...

It really was an extraordinary read wasn't it? Months later and I'm still thinking about it. I also know that I want to reread it one day soon as I feel that I raced through it so quickly, that I may have missed something.

Tracey said...

I think the format was definitely unique and extraordinary, but I can't imagine I'll ever re-read it again though. (I don't think you missed anything).