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?
‘The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.’ – Lola, Baroness Young, Man Booker 2017 Chair of Judges
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.
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 * Death haunts us, and in Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders mines the many ways it does: the Gothic, the sentimental, the fearful and, above all, the grief-stricken -- Joan Bakewell * New Statesman, Books of the Year 2017 * I was impressed but challenged by the originality and scope of George Saunders's Booker-winning story of grief and empathy, Lincoln in the Bardo -- Gordon Brown * Guardian, Best Books of 2017 * 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 * A historical novel that hews deeply and movingly to archival fact while also being an all-out crazy spectacle of his own invention ... A puzzling, hilarious vortex of invention that only Saunders could pull off. The novel made me feel intimate with Lincoln, and that particular moment of history, in a way I never had before -- Jennifer Egan * Guardian, Best Books of 2017 * Ingenious ... As entrancing as it is beautiful -- Chigozie Obioma * Observer, Best Books of the Year 2017 * 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 * Lincoln in the Bardo was every bit as wonderful as I expected from the great George Saunders -- Paul Murray * Observer, Best Books of the Year 2017 * 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 * Could hardly be more of a phenomenal tour de force ... Encompassing macabre fantasy and aching emotion, this brilliantly imaginative excursion into a post-mortem world hauntingly celebrates the pleasures and the privilege of life -- Peter Kemp * The Sunday Times, 'Novel of the Year 2017' * 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 * The book is as weird as it sounds, but it's also pretty darn good -- James Marriott * The Times, Best Fiction of 2017 * A surreal metaphysical drama about grief and freedom ... A father-son narrative that is both hilarious and haunting -- Johanna Thomas-Corr * Evening Standard * I was so pleased that George Saunders won the Booker for Lincoln in the Bardo. He's like literary psilocybin, scaring the bejesus out of you before revealing the world anew -- Richard Godwin * Evening Standard, Books of the Year 2017 * 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 * I can't choose Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: everyone will, right? Still, it's utterly astonishing -- Erica Wagner * New Statesman, Books of the Year 2017 * A masterpiece -- Zadie Smith * New York Times * `The Man Booker Prize judges got it right in choosing George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo ... A polyphonic masterpiece, by turns hilarious and deeply poignant -- Jason Cowley * New Statesman, Books of the Year 2017 * 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 * Saunders is defined by a crackling, electric kind of empathy; by the kind of humbling understanding that simply comes from trying to look further, understand more, know deeper -- Joseph Earp * The Brag * A hands-down masterpiece - the subject of Abraham Lincoln and the genius of this author is a perfect union ... I wept while reading this book. It is singular - I've never read anything quite like it -- Jeffrey Tambor * International New York Times * I literally couldn't put it down ... Hilarious to poignant to really moving * Irish Country * Surprising, daring, emotionally wrenching and warm-hearted * Sunday Times, Summer Reading, `Our Top Five' * Fact and fiction mingle in this affecting portrait of a grieving president * Financial Times, Summer Reading * Best known for his critically acclaimed short stories, this is Saunders' first full-length novel, told with tenderness, imagination and wit * Zoe Apostolides, Daily Telegraph, Summer Reading * It's like a gothic, American Under Milk Wood * The Times, Summer Reading * Filled with wit and sadness ... It is an immensely powerful work. In the hands of the right imagination, the horror of individual loss can become an extraordinarily humane exploration of the beauty and the value of life, however painful * Guardian * I met the amazing George Saunders at a recent festival and can't wait to read Lincoln in the Bardo * Anne Enright, Irish Times * George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo is an extraordinary act of poignant literary virtuosity about love, death, ghosts and history, starring the grieving president * Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard, Summer Reading * I was won over by the sheer brio, writerly flourish and humanity of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which imagines a disputatious convocation of the dead observing the US president as he mourns his son * Nick Curtis, Evening Standard, Summer Reading * From his short stories, we might have expected Saunders's long-awaited first novel to be some sprawling vision of a future America. In fact, it's a historical novel - albeit one like no other ... It's an admirable feat of style * Daily Telegraph, Summer Reading * I'll be working my way on backwards through George Saunders, having been hooked conclusively by Lincoln in the Bardo, tonal whimsies and all. I'm presently on Tenth of December, but I expect to have reached The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by the time we go on holiday * Francis Spufford, Guardian, Summer Reading * It revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln's son, who died aged 11, and his fellows in the graveyard. There's no single narrator, but hundreds of different voices instead * Daily Telegraph * Unfolding in the graveyard over a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief and the deeper meaning and possibilities of life * Irish Times * Huge excitement greeted this debut novel from the US short-story master. Abraham Lincoln mourns his dead son, while other spirits in the cemetery, hovering between life and death * Guardian (Review) * Picture a less fiery Purgatory with quirky ghost from Edward Gorey materializing in the official video of Michael Jackson's Thriller and you get a flavour of this darkly comic metaphysical tale ... Saunders combines the larky and the macabre to wondrous effect ... Skilful juxtaposition of multiple viewpoints creates both knockabout humour and deep anguish ... Gloriously bonkers -- Allison Pearson * Sunday Telegraph * It's impossible to read Lincoln in the Bardo and not think of America's current convulsions, of the impossibility of reconciling personal and public duty, of the harrowing, hollowing nature of irreversible loss -- Alex Clark * Observer * Fantastical, funny and deeply affecting ... At a time when America is divided, the book drills down to its early rupture ... Saunders' project has always been one of radical empathy: to forge connections through the most unlikely means and in the most unpromising contexts. In this book there is warmth mixed into the weirdness; moral force behind the grotesquerie; and wild humour amid the tragedy. One can safely say there's never been a novel like it -- Justine Jordan * Guardian * In all his work, Saunders displays a knack for rendering abstract concepts with a specificity that seems both fantastical and familiar. No matter how strange the world of his fiction, at its heart is always something sentimentally recognisable ... He lets you see the small moments of transition that a heart needs to keep belief alive. At its heart, Lincoln in the Bardo is an exploration of empathy -- Paula Cocozza * Guardian * One of the year's most original and electrifying novels * Economist, Books of the Year * Few things live up to their hype, but the first novel by American short-story writer George Saunders, which won the Booker Prize, is a rare work of modern genius. Innovative, compelling, moving and amusing, his story of squabbling spirits in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln has just laid to rest his young son captures the human condition in a way only the greatest novelists can. Yes, it's that good -- Andrew Johnson * Independent, Books of the Year * The renowned short-story writer combined various forms from historical letters, to footnotes to comic dialogue, into a moving - if not entirely cohesive - story about loss, grief and our unwillingness to let go * Irish Times, Books of the Year * You've never read anything like it. George Saunders takes risks. The risks he takes are always playful and wise ... The way he does things is almost spiritual, which is interesting - you don't see that much these days -- Anne Enright * Irish Examiner, Books of the Year * A haunting tour de force ... At once funny, heart-breaking and utterly original * Tablet, Books of the Year * To nominate standout books I only had to think for a nanosecond: with Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders takes the novel by the scruff of its neck, shakes loose then reassembles every single component: voice, structure, plot, characterisation, even layout. It's a brilliant and awe-inspiring performance, blackly comic, deeply moving, unforgettable -- Debra Adelaide * Sydney Morning Herald, Books of the Year 2017 *