Review by Ilse Scheepers
How do we make sense of a world where everyone we love will die? How can we navigate our way through - and out - of grief when the world around us demands we carry on? How can a parent ever heal after burying a child? And what if that parent is already encumbered with the weight of leading a nation that is tearing itself apart?
Saunders has taken these questions and woven a kaleidoscopic, dazzling novel based on the death of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie, in 1862. Lincoln visited the boy's body several times after his interment and held him close, a man sunken in grief while the nation he lead was engaged in a violent and bloody Civil War. This image of a father cradling his son's body is so striking, and so private, that to read about it almost feels profane. If it weren't for the obvious tenderness that is so clearly displayed in such an act, it would be verging on the morbid.
The bardo of the title is a reference to the transitional realm of Tibetan tradition, where consciousness resides after death, but before being reborn. And in Saunders' whirling, staggering first novel, it is a realm populated with souls who clamour to be heard and to connect after the shock of being ripped away from the mortal world. They ramble, pester, joke, chatter and clash in a cacophony of voices. Willie is in the bardo, and soon Lincoln becomes trapped in this liminal state, buffeted and encircled by the swirling sounds as he attempts to cope with his loss.
Saunders has woven snatches of historical documents in amongst the tapestry of this novel. Letters from well wishers, contemporary accounts of his grief and more, all coalesce to create a novel that is utterly unlike any other. It is not an easy read - it constantly challenges the reader and leaves little room for the inattentive. But it is breathtaking, and I read it in a state of awestruck consternation - am I, as a reader, up to this? Do I have the stamina? Can I relax and just go, slip into the current of his storytelling and let it buffet and drag and push me along?
In the end, I'm still not sure I have answers to those questions. But I do know this is a book I will revisit and re-read in an attempt to decode further. I am particularly looking forward to hearing how this reads on audio - there are apparently over 160 narrators who will bring it to life, and perhaps this will offer yet another angle by which to examine this bafflingly, beautiful work.
The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War
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 transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as 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?
About the Author
George Saunders is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short-story collection). He has received MacArthur and Guggen-heim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
George Saunders's brilliant debut novel about a grieving Lincoln confirms him as a literary star ... To read Saunders's fiction is to be dazzled by ingenuity, imagination and searing comic verve ... A tender but trenchant reminder that America is and always has been many-voiced: not one story, but millions Sunday Times A luminous feat of generosity and humanism... Such is Saunders's magnificent portraiture that readers will recognize in this wretchedness and bravery aspects of their own characters as well -- Colson Whitehead New York Times The most strange and brilliant book you'll read this year ... Riotously imagined ... So intimate and human, so profound, that it seems like an act of grace Financial Times Dazzling and disorientating ... As you turn the pages of this remarkable novel it starts to feel uncannily like a hinge in American history The Times It would be an understatement to call this novel an extraordinary tour de force ... Steeped in morality, it's a master-feat of vitality Sunday Times A breathtakingly agile narrative ... A brilliant, exhausting, emotionally involving attempt to get up again, to fight for empathy, kindness and self-sacrifice, and to resist -- Alex Clark Observer A surreal metaphysical drama about grief and freedom ... A father-son narrative that is both hilarious and haunting -- Johanna Thomas-Corr Evening Standard Saunders's extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life ... It is Saunders's beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln - caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were - that powers this book -- Michiko Kakutani New York Times A masterpiece -- Zadie Smith New York Times An incredible work of art. Deeply moral, heartfelt, hilarious, and wildly imaginative Buzzfeed A strange and haunting novel - his highly anticipated first, after decades of short-story wizardry - about the effect the dead have on the living, and the living on the dead Economist The story canters along ... The writing constantly surprises Mail on Sunday Lincoln in the Bardo has great matters on its mind: freedom and slavery, the spirit and the body. But it is, finally, "about" Abraham Lincoln, that great spectral presence in a whole subgenre of American fiction New Yorker Must be one of my favourite novels. What a warm, kindhearted and radical piece of writing. Such delicacy, such serious wit. I love it -- Max Porter This is a book that confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like Washington Post The much anticipated long-form debut from the US short-story maestro does not dissapoint Guardian An original father-son tale that expertly blends history and fiction (and even the supernatural), Lincoln in the Bardo explores grief, loss, life, death Buzzfeed Year Ahead in Books A historical novel like no other - a supernatural ensemble extravaganza of awesome intricacy and somewhat perplexing purpose ... A feat of style ... A polyphonic spree that spins the head -- Anthony Cummins Daily Telegraph George Saunders makes you feel as though you are reading fiction for the first time Khaled Hosseini A cacophonous, genre-busting book inspired by the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son Metro A morally passionate, serious writer ... He will be read long after these times have passed Zadie Smith He makes the all-but-impossible look effortless. We're lucky to have him Jonathan Franzen An astoundingly tuned voice - graceful, dark, authentic and funny Thomas Pynchon Saunders is a writer of arresting brilliance and originality, with a sure sense of his material and apparently inexhaustible resources of voice ... Scary, hilarious and unforgettable Tobias Wolff There is no one better, no one more essential Dave Eggers Few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does Junot Diaz Saunders is a true original - restlessly inventive, yet deeply humane Jennifer Egan Reading George Saunders is, it's safe to say, like no other literary experience Observer No one writes more powerfully than George Saunders about the lost, the unlucky, the disenfranchised -- Michiko Kakutani New York Times Funny, poignant - in flashes, deeply moving - light as a feather and consistently weird -- Hari Kunzru There is really no one like him. He is an original - but everyone knows that -- Lorrie Moore Swings from hilarious to crushing and back again with astonishing dexterity ... An exceptional novel ... Believe the hype Chicago Review of Books Strange, profound, melancholy ... In the final of Lincoln of the Bardo, the realities of death and loss are faced head-on ... Historical fiction will never be the same Newsday The author may have set out to write his first novel, but the work he completed is a genre unto itself The Atlantic An unsentimental novel of Shakespearean proportions, gorgeously stuffed with tragic characters, bawdy humor, terrifying visions, throat-catching tenderness, and a galloping narrative Elle One of the strangest books of mainstream fiction around, competing only with some of Saunders's own story collection for unbridled inventiveness GQ A matterlightblooming phenomenon. Loud and big. Exploding with grief and, more so, hope. And better left undescribed until you yourself reach the end Time It's only February but this will undoubtedly be considered one of the best books of 2017 Huffington Post Wonderfully bizarre and hilariously terrifying examination of the ability to live and love Poets & Writers Moving and inventive tour de force Sunday Times Fiction taken to a new realm, and a work of sheer brilliance GQ This astounding novel pitches you into the strangest of places ... Brilliant Psychologies Devastatingly moving People Along with the wonderfully bizarre, empathy abounds in Lincoln Time A strange, wise novel, truer in its expression than many ostensibly historical novels New Humanist Tremendously moving ... Surpasses all expectations. This is a masterpiece Sunday Express An urgently political, profoundly moral book, albeit one so playful and so fantastical that the reader may hardly notice Economist A joyous, comically macabre exploration of love, death and loss ... Bursting with life -- Book of the Week Bristol Post
Number Of Pages: 368
Published: 1st February 2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 23.8 x 16.0 x 2.8
Weight (kg): 0.55
Edition Number: 1