Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I don’t know about you, but any work of fiction which ends up teaching me stuff, is always a winner. School and I didn’t really get on, but I have always read books and I genuinely think that is how I learnt the most. So when I was choosing my next read from the Booker shortlist, I chose this one, in the hope that I could learn something new about American history, about Lincoln, about anything in fact. 

The story centres on the night that Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died, in 1862, a year after the Civil war started – it charts his short illness, the party the Lincolns were giving on the night of his death, the ceremony to commit the child to the cemetery.

But that’s where it stops being any standard novel. The book is written from the accounts of beings surrounding Lincoln at this time – that is, extracts taken from newspapers, from other books written by people observing him, from the nightwatchman at the cemetery. And also, from the souls of the dead who have remained, for whatever reason, on this earth, who still occupy the graveyard where Willie is taken.

Lincoln is so very grief stricken by the death of his beloved son, that he finds himself unable to leave him in the cold dark of the cemetery, much to the consternation of the ghosts who live there. These ghosts are used to greeting newcomers but the arrival of such a young soul comes as a shock to them and throws their very existence into question. Their stories are what surround Lincoln as he grieves for his son, and through his grief, they are able to glimpse the very thing that they lost since they arrived at that place – their humanity.

It’s not the easiest book to read, and in fact I have now read it twice, because when I finished it the first time, I felt like I hadn’t done it justice. It took me a while to get used to the fact that  much of the narrative comes from ghosts.

This is a love story, a ghost story, a horror story, a work of fiction, a novel based on fact. It’s a wonder to read, funny, dark, sad, challenging. All the words. I did learn from this book, about American history a little, and about Lincoln as a person (if this account is true, he deserves his position as one of the most loved American presidents) but as well as the facts, this book is about regret, fear, hope and love. Once you get in to the swing of it, and you may need to persevere to do so, I’m convinced you’ll love it. 

N.B I wrote this last week (just haven’t had a chance to post) and it turns out that Lincoln in the Bardo has won the Man Booker prize! Good for George, a long term master of short stories who apparently has been wanting to write this book for 20 years, but didn’t know how.

Also, if you fancied giving the audiobook version a go, bear in mind that he used a different voice for each character – that means over 100 people feature in the audio book. It could either be a nightmare or be amazing – let me know if you do. 

If you end up reading this book or any other that I’ve reviewed on this blog, please do comment, as I’d love to hear your thoughts x


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