We are often quite wary of big award winners and rarely come back with a high score for novels deemed worthy by panels of experts. Lincoln in the Bardo is an exception.
The novel is by American short story writer George Saunders and is his first novel, which he first began to work on over 20 years ago. The novel was awarded The Man Booker Prize in 2017.
Written, or perhaps constructed, using quotes from multiple sources, some genuine and others fictional, it’s quite impressive how the author weaves these snippets together to form a coherent narrative, a story easily followed.
The story centres on the death of Willie Lincoln, favourite son of US President Abraham Lincoln, who died at the age of 11, and tells of his experiences in the otherworldly Bardo, a state similar to concepts like limbo and purgatory, a place where souls with issues gather to work through the internalised guilt and regrets holding them back from moving on to whatever comes next, or simply because they cannot accept that they are deceased.
Willie’s death causes the President much grief and anguish, at a time when he was not regarded as the national hero he is held up to be today. The civil war was dragging on and political tensions about the path the country was on led to Lincoln being perceived as a very unpopular leader.
On several occasions, grieving and seeming not to accept his son’s death, Lincoln visits the body of his son as it lays in a crypt in a Georgetown cemetery, prompting much interest and debate among the other spirits present in the graveyard.
In this context we are introduced to a cast of colourful characters, 166 ghosts whose observations and interactions lead us on Willie’s journey from sick-box, the term the dead use for coffins, towards his ultimate end. They are all concerned for the boy who should not be lingering in the Bardo as he has no unfinished business.
The three main spectres who tell the tale are the many limbed (along with eyes, noses, and mouths) Roger Bevins III, a Gay man who has committed suicide, Hans Vollman who manifests with a huge unsatisfied erection after dying before he got to consummate his marriage to his young wife, and The Reverend Everly Thomas whose sins are too much to acknowledge, even to himself. The spirits of the dead are all moved by the boy and his father grieving as he visits the crypt and holds his lifeless son in his arms. The story reaches its climax with Roger and Hans desperately attempting to reach the President in order to enable Willie to move on.
We rated this book 4.6 out of 5 stars. It’s an innovative novel, profound and thought provoking, its darkness balanced with warmth and humour. We highly recommend it.
Andrew, Brixton Library Reading Group