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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

BOTTOM LINE: A must-read

Genre: Literary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 14 February 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,’ the president says at the time. ‘God has called him home.’ Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?”

My Thoughts: Lincoln in the Bardo is already generating Best of 2017 noise and with good reason; it is that good. The story is a simple one, but what Mr. Saunders does with language, history, religion, and format adds layers to it that creates a complex narrative of love and loss, grief and hope, and fear and peace. It is the type of novel that you want to read without stopping, but immediately upon finishing it you want to start over again to savor every word. Each reading method has value, as it is the type of novel from which you glean a new nugget of insight with every reading. In other words, it is the best type of novel.

What makes  Lincoln in the Bardo so special is how Mr. Saunders takes one small fraction of historical lore and plays with it to draw out every ounce of emotion in a reader. At the same time, he provides a general context by which one can examine one’s own belief systems. Then, because that is not enough, by listening to what the shades have to say about their past lives and their current state of existence, he forces readers to examine their own lives and judge it for its worthiness. He manages to make readers an active part of the story while also maintaining their passive observing. It does not make sense, but it is exceedingly effective.

This is Mr. Saunders’ first full-length novel, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is by no means a typical novelist. Instead of huge chunks of descriptive text and miles upon miles of dialogue, the story reads – and is formatted – like a collection of quotes and anecdotes. Some of these are spoken by the shades in attendance at the cemetery who spend their time watching over and explaining the nature of their existence to Willie. Others appear to be historical documents or other epistolary entries. Sometimes, we even see directly into President Lincoln’s mind. For as many different characters as there are in the novel (there are 166 different narrators for the audiobook), each voice is unique and, more importantly, memorable.

In addition, there is not much space devoted to description, but readers still manage to know the distinguishing features of the characters. He adds enough descriptors to the dialogue to bring the characters to life physically as well as emotionally and mentally. It is a feat not many authors would be able to achieve, and yet Mr. Saunders does so with aplomb.

The format lends itself perfectly to an audio experience, and the idea of so many different narrators is highly intriguing. However, reading the novel provides its own pleasures. With the print version, you are able to stop and re-read his words for greater understanding or just pause to savor them. Sometimes, with audio, it is a bit more difficult to do that even while the narrator’s performance can provide a different level of insight.

Plenty has been stated about the story itself, which is as beautiful and gut-wrenching as everyone else is saying. For me, all of that is possible because of the way Mr. Saunders plays with language itself and the idea and appearance of the novel. His version is so refreshing and unique. Each new vignette is a treat, even as it manages to spear your heart with its pathos. It all adds up to the following realization: if there is one book this year that is a must-read,  Lincoln in the Bardo is that book.

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