39) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Fortuitously, I found myself finishing this off as it was announced as this year’s Booker Prize winner. I’m a fan of George Saunders: if you haven’t read any of his short stories, you are in for a treat: they are moving, incisive and extremely funny by turns. So of the shortlist, this one had leapt out at me, particularly as it is his first novel.
It is a book unlike anything I’ve previously read: hugely inventive in its form, with the text largely made up of quotes and references from old texts and publications (some made up, some real, I assume) and dialogue from the participants of the story: of whom there are *many*. The story is based around the (real) fact that Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died when he was very young, and that this deeply affected Lincoln at the time. The ‘Bardo’ of the title is a sort of intermediate state between life and death (and a staging post before heaven and hell), and the main characters of the story are all stuck in this limbo-world.
The book isn’t as naturally and instantly engaging as Saunders’ short stories, and takes a little while to get into. But soon I was loving the waterfall of quotes and references, contradicting each other and building layers of detail and perspective: in this sense, many of these contextual chapters are constantly reminding us of the fluidity of history and the blurring between one person’s truth and another’s lie. It’s a simple but clever way of pushing the narrative along without bogging the reader down in historical research-type paragraphs and making a point about stories and fictions and how we interpret them and read them.
The characters in the bardo are equally intriguing, representing the full spectrum of America at that time, in all its conflicts, classes and crimes. Paedophiles, murderers and rapists stand next to priests and housewives and shopkeepers – all living in a society infused with the supernatural and a perpetual feeling of anxiety. As the book goes on, more of this world is revealed to the reader, and it becomes more and more affecting.
I won’t pretend this is the easiest read, but nor is it a chore. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as his short story collections, but it has more depth, more invention and greater meaning than can be achieved in that shorter form. I don’t know what it all means, but I do know it’s set me thinking in myriad ways, and has stayed with me well beyond finishing it – on how we respond to adversity, on the nature of truth (and falsehood), on humanity and spirituality. For these reasons and more, I’d very much recommend it.