Yowsers. I’ve now read 3 of the 6 2017 Man Booker Prize Shortlisted novels* and this one: Lincoln in the Bardo, is a cracker. For me, it was everything a book could be: novel, so readable, both heart rending and uplifting, informative and thought-provoking. Mostly, so clever. Saunders is an expert tour guide, bringing a complicated setting, plot and characters together so smoothly you forget how strange a world it is you are immersed in.
It should be said from the outset to anyone about to dive into this book that it is entirely made up of quotes from what should be (but isn’t) a dizzying number of characters, books, newspapers etc. Each quote or excerpt is footed by a credit. In this way, we get to know a large number of characters intimately, but also, there is no official narrator. Guiding us instead, are three main characters, all residents of the Bardo, which is a sort of holding place between death and whatever it is that is after death.
These three are wonderful, empathetic characters, rendered in the Bardo in strange forms, as all residents there are. They introduce us to the other residents of the Bardo: an array of so many glorious characters you almost want Saunders to write a book from each of their unique perspectives.
Alongside this kaleidoscopic narration, while we get to know these characters and the Bardo itself, we are provided with both a history lesson, and a lesson on history. We are thrown into accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, particularly around the time of the civil war. These vary from newspaper article snippets, to excerpts from history books, including direct quotes from characters around The President at the time. I don’t know how many of these are real, but they certainly seem real. The beauty of these is that stacked alongside each other as they are, this absent/omnipresent narrator takes no stance, and instead shows us the breadth of the range of opinions on The President, both at the time, and since, with conflicting positive and negative perspectives given right next to each other, making us suddenly doubt the accounts of these so called experts (historians and journalists alike).
Conversely, when Lincoln’s son, Willy, comes to the Bardo, and Lincoln himself visits his body in the middle of the night, our three guides give us an insight into his emotional turmoil that rings so true and feels so right, that suddenly we find ourselves trusting these ghostly creatures more than the official narrative.
Bundled into these themes of truth and story-telling are meditations on grief, on self-control and self-assessment, friendship and our very human fear of death. In the form of Abraham Lincoln, of all people, we meet a friend who feels as confused by life as we all do at times.
Endings are my pet hate and that’s why Lincoln in the Bardo is so good. A deeply satisfying wrap up is rare, and perhaps because of Saunders’ day job as a short story writer, he definitely delivers. I’ve also now found myself wondering about Abraham Lincoln, like I know the guy myself, and I have now gone down an internet rabbit hole of American history (especially Lincoln history) – armed with a discerning eye, of course. And that’s a whole other kind of ending: the kind that’s actually a beginning.
Highly recommended, but not on your iPad, which sets all the quotes out weirdly. Get thee to a bookshop!
Love, Ali x
Since writing this review, Lincoln in the Bardo was awarded the Man Booker Prize for 2017.
*The 2017 Man Booker shortlist
4321 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals, John Murray)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)