Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders review

Hi everyone! Today I’ll be reviewing George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker prize last year. This is quite a hard novel to summarise but I shall try my best. It is February 1862 and Willie Lincoln, the president’s young son, has died and is laid to rest in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery. His grief-stricken father visits his boy after the ceremony to hold him. Watching this are the ghosts who haunt the cemetery, who are also in denial about their own deaths. They believe they are merely ill and are expecting to make a full recovery and return to their previous lives.

This novel is brilliantly bonkers and imaginative, right down to the narrative structure. When the ghosts speak to one another it is laid out like a playscript, but when we are learning about Abraham Lincoln and his circumstances it is told through secondary sources (both real and imagined). This helps to emphasise the barrier between the living and the dead, with those still alive presented as though tangible and real and the dead the complete opposite. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction also shows the blurring of two worlds that the ghosts are experiencing. They can observe the living when they enter Oak Hill but are not a part of it. Far from being pretentious and gimmicky, I found it really clever and interesting that Saunders has structured the novel this way and think he pulls it off brilliantly.

The juggling of pathos and humour within the narrative is also well done. The scene with Lincoln cradling his young son in the crypt was so beautifully written that I had tears in my eyes reading it. You could easily feel Lincoln’s anguish at the loss of his child. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a ghost who, after being killed before consummating his marriage, wanders around with a giant erection. There are obviously comments made about this throughout the story and I couldn’t help but childishly giggle at moments. There are also two ghosts serving as comic relief whose every second word is a curse. The switching between tender, poignant scenes and quite rude, lowbrow humour could very easily have not worked. But Saunders gives the reader time in-between to either reflect or laugh at the scene before moving on to the next. The result is a novel which is unpredictable and hard to describe (as you can probably see from this review).

The characters as well are wonderfully written. The ghosts all have very distinct personalities, and through their speech it is easy to glimpse which century and class they are from and what their beliefs are. Perhaps at points they can appear one-note but I think it is due to them suppressing certain memories that would confirm their death. Their sheer determination to make it back to the world of living is tragic and you can’t help but pity them. Despite knowing it is impossible you find yourself wishing they would. One of the final conversations between Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III is perhaps my favourite scene in the book. The character development displayed there is simply stunning.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an incredible romp. It is downright bizarre but I loved it all the more for it. The structure, the pacing and the characterisation I found flawless and wouldn’t change a bit. You don’t need to know anything about Lincoln to enjoy the novel as it’s primary focus is on the inhabitants of the cemetery. Despite the sadness within the pages I left the book with a new lust for life, a life to enjoy as it can be robbed from you easily. Lincoln in the Bardo is only the second book I have read this year and if everything else is to it’s same standard I will be a very happy reader. I cannot wait to check out more of Saunders and think he thoroughly deserved to win the Man Booker.

Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury and more information can be found here.

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