At the time of reviewing, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo seems to be the hot favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, and I can see why it has its staunch supporters. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first time I’ve read Saunders’ work and, based on this one, I’ll certainly be seeking out the rest of his oeuvre PDQ. But should it win?
Lincoln in the Bardo is an exhilarating read and one which deserves all the praise being heaped upon it. I had fully expected to find it an emotional, harrowing read, given that Saunders has taken the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son as his starting point. I had not expected to find the novel so utterly hilarious at times, thanks to the voices of the other inhabitants of the ‘Bardo’, a Tibetan term for the transitional stage between life and death, who find the late Willie Lincoln in their cemetery and decide that they must help him to complete his journey onwards, however unwilling he might be.
Saunders’ use of multiple historical sources and narratives serves to remind us that the sixteenth President of America and his wife are grieving parents, and Lincoln is presiding over a country at war with itself, a country watching its sons die on a scale previously unseen. The sense of loss, both at a personal and national level, is keenly noted and hard to read at times, given the historical actuality of it all. One of the voices we hear is that of another grieving father, a Robert Hansworthy of Boonsboro, Maryland. In his letter to his President, he asks, ‘How miny more ded do you attend to make sir afore you is done?’ Death hangs heavy in this novel.
However, the other sections of the novel, those narrated by the inhabitants of the cemetery, veer from high tragedy to a fine sense of the absurd, depending on which ‘ghost’ (for want of a better term) is speaking. Some have suffered terribly in their lives, whilst others carry the evidence of their former behaviour and desires for all to see. In the case of Hans Vollman, struck down before his marriage to his beautiful young wife is consummated, this includes a massive appendage, the comic value of which is worthy of some of the best Eighteenth Century literary gags. I also loved the fate of Trevor Williams, a former hunter, who is compelled to hold in his arms, ‘with loving attention’, all the animals he has ever dispatched until they feel ready to ‘trot or fly or squirm away’.
The reader quickly gets used to the cacophony of voices all eager to tell their tales and play their part in the new drama in the cemetery, for rarely have any of them been visited once the ceremony of the funeral is finished. But this is what Lincoln is doing, unable to leave his son to his final resting place. It falls to the ‘ghosts’ to help his son accept that he must let go.
This is undoubtedly a virtuoso piece of writing by a master craftsman. I did cry and I did laugh aloud. If this had been shortlisted last year, or the year before come to that, I would have had no doubt in my mind that this would be the clear winner. But this year’s shortlist is a strong one and Saunders has stiff competition. I loved it – it is highly original – but it’s not the only shortlisted novel to linger in my mind after I’ve turned the final page. All bets are off.