Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This tale begins with a young boy who wakes up in a cemetary and has no idea where he is or how he got there, we soon come to learn he is the son of President Lincoln who has recently passed on from Typhoid fever (The boy….not Lincoln). Thus begins a very dreamlike ghost story about death, grief and missed opportunities.
To start with, I absolutely loved this story! It was so unique in the way it was told and almost read more like a play than a novel. The book was written in the form of snippets from historical documents (some real and some not so much) that pieced together the events surrounding Willie Lincoln’s death and narrations of the life stories and thoughts of the ghosts inhabiting the graveyard. I would recommend listening to this as an audiobook, in combination with reading some of the text, if you have the means to do so. I think the narration really enhances the story as the version I listened to is made up of a full ensemble cast so you really get into the feeling and tone of the story. I don’t think I would have liked it quite as much if I had just read the text alone.
I especially enjoyed the narrations of the ghosts inhabiting the graveyard. Their voices were at times unexpectedly humorous, and it really felt like you were getting a cross section of a small village in that time period. The ghosts kind of reminded me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, but in a much more grown up way. There was discussions of class, wealth, race relations, gender norms and inequality. All the ghosts in the story are stuck in this limbo between life and death under a shared delusion that they are only sick and not dead. This is cleverly alluded to in the title as “Bardo” is a Tibetan Buddhist term that “refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth”, which is where all these ghosts believe they are, waiting to return to their lives. Each has some moment or hope that has been left unfulfilled and they are caught up in a loop of what if or if only. They wish to return to these lives they have invented in their heads that don’t quite add up to the reality they left behind.
We also follow the President as he attempts to cope with his loss and get insight into to the relationship of Willie with his parents. These sections with Willie and Lincoln together really served to make the story more real and genuine and there was some truly heartbreaking moments.
This story was heartbreaking, funny, and a bit spooky at times and I would highly recommend it! Just keep in mind it can take a bit of adjustment to get used to the narration style and I think much like a play it is easier to follow and enjoy when listening to it being performed on the audiobook.
So Manbooker thoughts, I enjoyed this so much and would be happy to see it on the shortlist. I can see it actually making it on the list as well since it is such a unique writing style that I have not come across before. This one gets points for individuality!
Manbooker 2017 4/13
……I couldn’t help it….I regret nothing…