Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

July 13, 2018

5 / 5 Stars

 

A book of jaw-dropping scope and imagination - tackling history from a wholly unique perspective.

I went into this book without a clue as to what to expect. Obviously, given it was a Booker Prize winner, I was expecting it to be good. But I had no idea what the content would be... only that Abraham Lincoln was somehow tied up in all of it. 

What I encountered was a book that yes, did cover Lincoln's time as president; but actually something that was far, far bigger than that. More than anything else, this is a deftly written, highly unusual examination of death, and the impact it has not only on the living, but those who have departed. 

 


How to summarise such a book? Well, without spoiling it for those who haven't read it, it's partially laid out like a play, with various characters (living and dead) interjecting; and often contradicting one another. (In this aspect, I was really reminded of Samuel Beckett's 'Play' - which is also about the afterlife). It soon becomes apparent that the main thrust of the story is about the death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son; and both father and son's inability to let go of one another. 

And yep, it really is as moving as it sounds. 

The style of writing is breathtakingly different -risky as hell, but to my mind, it totally paid off. Despite being very 'unusual', it was also accessible, and in places, fairly ribald. This is an author who is just as comfortable making toilet jokes as he is writing about lofty topics. 

For me, the strongest aspect was the emotional impact. There were a few times when I felt myself welling up, because the author captures the essence of grief so painfully well - particularly the loss of a child. When we think of Abraham Lincoln, we seldom consider the grieving father, yet that's exactly what he was. It really made me stop and think about the trauma of losing a twelve year old son (gulp - there I go again with the near-blubbering) - and the author handles this with admirable sensitivity and depth. 

Above all else, this is a book about the nature of death. The afterlife presented here is a shifty, aimless world of meandering around, arguing, debating, reminiscing, but above all else, not being able to let go of life. Yet, as the author highlights at the end - sometimes there's a beauty in letting go. 

Lovely, lovely stuff - I'm sure I'll re-read it at some point!

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