Thinking of buying the Booker Prize winning novel? Read our review of ’Lincoln in the Bardo’

Earlier this year Sarah Gilmartin reviewed George Saunders Booker prize winning novel ’Lincoln in the Bardo’ for the Irish Examiner’s ’Weekend’ magazine. We thought it was a good time to republish it!

ONE of the most anticipated publications of the year Lincoln in the Bardo is the debut novel from the award-winning short story writer George Saunders.

The American author has published nine books of essays or short stories, including the 2013 collection Tenth of December, which won the inaugural Folio Prize. He counts among his admirers Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood.

Saunders’s debut novel does not disappoint, though it lacks the cohesion of his masterful short fiction. Lincoln is a highly inventive book that delights in its mismatch of genres. Historical fiction, biography, elements of Gothic and science fiction all combine to an engaging read that challenges from the opening page.

The Lincoln in the title is not the famous president, but rather his young son Willie who has died from typhoid as civil war grips America. Saunders skilfully sets the president’s personal grief against the wider political backdrop: “I am not stable and Mary not stable and the very buildings and monuments here not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable”.

As he visits his son’s grave at night time in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown — one of many real life nuggets — President Lincoln’s anguish is vividly related: “He is just one. And the weight of it about to kill me”.

The novel is comprised of snippets from a vast cast of characters, real and imaginary, dead and alive. Saunders had originally intended to dramatise the story and the form lingers in the dialogue structure of his novel.

Having failed to write a script, he has come up instead with a polyphonic narrative that focuses on loss, kinship and the fallibility of memory.

Quotes from biographies are interspersed with fictional extracts to detail the grand party the Lincolns held at the White House as their son lay dying upstairs. Another chapter is given over to describing the moon on the same night, with accounts varying from “a silver wedge” to “full yellow”.

Guiding the narrative are three lost souls in the bardo, the Buddhist term for a limbo-like afterlife for those who cannot accept death. Bevins is a closet gay man who slits his wrists when jilted by his lover. Vollman is a kindly printer who leaves behind his beloved young wife on the cusp of consummating their marriage. Reverend Everly is a preacher who gives a startling account of the “diamond doors” that lead to heaven and the “faeces encrusted mirror” that points the other way.

The plot, in as much as there is one, centres on their attempts to persuade President Lincoln to say goodbye to his son, instead of condemning Willie to the hideous fate of children who stay in the bardo.

With a writer as skilled as Saunders, there is rich imagery throughout, with laughs aplenty from the cast of miscreants that wander through the bardo in search of vindication. The sheer number of voices is confusing and grows tiresome at times, detracting from the main story.

Vollman, Bevins and Everly are more developed as characters and when Saunders turns his attention to their plights, their lives unlived, the novel really comes into its own. In many ways, the three ghostly narrators have a stronger presence than the Lincolns, and some of the most memorable passages come from their unfortunate circumstances.

But the novel belongs to Abe and his grief. In real life, the Lincolns lost three of their four sons. This bereavement is vividly fictionalised by Saunders not only through Lincoln’s voice but also through the accounts of others. Saunders has mined history to bring the heartache to life for the modern reader.

As an extract from a book of letters by the Boston heiress Isabelle Perkins puts it: “Imagine the pain of that, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird and be on your way”.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Bloomsbury, £18.99

 

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