George Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker prize for his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo and of course that is why I wanted to read it. It was a very challenging read for me, not least because of the 166 voices, both historical and fictional, but because it dealt with the subject of overwhelming grief.
The novel takes place in the ‘bardo’, apparently a Tibetan term for that immediate state between death and reincarnation when the soul is not connected to the body. The writing is indeed experimental as the whole story is made up of rearranged historical citations and fictional comments from the souls in the graveyard who appear unaware that they are dead. They marvel at Lincoln who comes to the graveyard and the depth of love for his son and the depth of grief he feels and how he cannot let the boy’s soul go. Apparently this part of the novel is based in fact and Saunders really explores a father’s grief using many historical references and challenging the reader to feel it too. I am not sure if this was more powerful because the historical citations, including the bitter criticism of Lincoln as a parent which were in the public realm, make it more true or whether Saunders is indeed a genius to pull together such a powerful rendition of a grieving father, who also happened to be the President, from all the historical facts on one moment of Lincoln’s public life.
Of course the fictional part of the novel is also told in multiple ghost voices not based in fact. And this bolsters the story but sometimes feel like ghost moths who you just want to brush away and get back to the ‘real’ story. There are also consequences for those souls who remain locked in the ‘bardo’ and refuse to move on. It is amazing to me how powerful this story, told in bits of history and bits of fiction, is as it comes together.
I can see why it won the Man Booker but I will not remember it as a favourite read. It was challenging, it was emotionally confronting for me, and because of this I think it was a great read but not a comforting one. It is also a novel that you mull over after you finish with it, another sign it is a great read.
Lincoln in the Bardo is also available as an eBook, audiobook and in large print.