SECOND OPINION: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Review published on August 9, 2018.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017, this is Saunders’ first novel, him having been associated with collections of short historical stories prior to this.

The book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is unusual. It is set in 1862 and surrounds the death of President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie, who succumbed to typhoid. It did take me a while to make sense of the story as it is written not unlike a play script, with a couple of main narrators talking to the reader, interspersed with some real and what seemed to be fake accounts of events at the time.

The three main narrators are dead, having been so for approximately 20 years, but they do not all realise it. They just think the coffins they reside in are their sick cots. There are also other dead spirits attracted to the death of Willie that talk to the reader too, so it becomes quite over-layered at times.

For its curious approach, the main narrators, Volman, Bevans and the Reverend offer the lighter satirical balance to a very poignant and sentimental depiction of Lincoln’s grief and loss of his son. It flows quite quickly for something so potentially dark, albeit there is always a sense of where is this story going? You are never sure if you are being taken on a mystical, magical detour and I found myself over-thinking things as I read – a mistake perhaps.

I quite enjoyed the book, whilst also feeling a little let down. I could readily recognise the talent in the writing, which warranted its award, but ultimately the book should carry the reader and I found as the denouement approached it didn’t quite pull it together for me and parts of it felt quite disconnected – nor was I left feeling buoyant about the writing. Perhaps my reading palate is not quite sophisticated enough for this type of oblique, artsy writing style but I was glad to have dipped my toe in and experienced it nonetheless.

Sara Garland 3/1

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Bloomsbury Paperbacks 9781408871775 pbk Feb 2018

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