Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A deserving winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. It's not an easy read but repays effort generously. An elegant, brilliant writer and probably the most influential of his generation. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368/7h25m Date: February 2018
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408871775

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As the American Civil War raged on, Abraham Lincoln was devastated by the death from typhoid of his eleven-year-old son, Willie. He was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown and newspapers reported that Lincoln was in the habit of returning to the crypt to hold the boy's body. So far, so apparently factual, but in this extraordinary first novel George Saunders weaves a magical, surreal tale of familial love and loss which breaks free of the earthly and moves to the supernatural. Sometimes it's funny but more often it's terrifying. We are in the bardo - in the Tibetan tradition, a state of consciousness between other states of consciousness in which it will be determined whether Willie ascends to nirvana or falls back and has to be born into a new body. A struggle erupts over Willie's soul and it will be fought out over a single night.

We've long known George Saunders to be the master of the short story, but this is his first excursion into the long form - and what an entry. Ghosts, squabble, argue and moan and we are introduced to a vast range of voices: occasionally it's difficult to keep track of them all. (I've determined that when I next read this book - as I surely will - I'll download the audiobook. I'm sure that it will be easier to follow what the spirits are saying.) The book's theatrical and wide ranging. Some of the ghosts are living. Some are dead. Some are real, historical personalities: others are fictional. All are utterly compelling.

Lincoln in the Bardo confirms Saunders as one of the most influential writers of his generation and possibly over an even wider time frame. There's theological complexity in the book and I doubt that anyone would describe it as easy reading. Occasionally you're tipped into horror, particularly with the appearance of the spirits with their numerous deformities, but Saunders is always quick to lighten the mood with his elegant humour, but it has to be said that this book is unlike anything which Saunders has written before - and not just because of the length. There's even a Gothic feel in places.

I was not entirely convinced by the ending, but I feel ungenerous in saying that as the book stands above most other contemporary fiction. I can't say that I enjoyed reading it, but I'm delighted to have done so and I'd like to thank the publishers for making a copy available to the Bookbag.

It's a difficult (if not impossible) book to follow, but if this book appeals then you might also enjoy Golden Hill by Francis Spufford.

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