Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Book Review)

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I heard about the release of this book at the beginning of the year, and it was my most anticipated to date:

February 1862. The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a strange purgatory – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – invisible to his father, bowed at the tomb. Within this transitional realm, where ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Having read some of Saunders’ short-stories, I was quite eager to see how he would approach writing a full length novel.

The whole story is set over one night in the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln was buried. He joins other spirits in the bardo, each reflecting on the lives they lived before they were left, forgotten in this place.

The characters all now live exaggerated realities of their desires in life, refusing to move on from that which characterised them before they were “sick”.  The book is written from the point of view of many of these characters in a very unique way, characteristic of Saunders. Many pages contain little more than 5 lines, and often these are quotes from sources around when Lincoln buried his son. The contrast between fiction and reality merging seamlessly in the writing.

The book has moments of stark honesty about the nature of life and the denial of death; the unity in suffering and the clinging to dissatisfaction. It was written in a unique way which garners interest in and of itself – I appreciate authors who are willing to take risks with what they write about and how they present it, and Saunders definetely pays off in this regard.

Worth a read if you get a chance, or have read his other stuff before. Otherwise it may seem a bit pricey for the time being until the paperback is released! With the line-spacing and the short chapters, this could easily be read very quickly, despite being around 350 pages long.

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