Sunday 27 August 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I was feeling a little cautious about reading Lincoln in the Bardo. Anytime I had heard someone talk about the book, they would mention the ghosts, the many, many voices and the grief. It sounded like it might be hard work or a bit too clever for its own good.

Fortunately, though, a reading copy recently came my way at work. And I was tempted.

Bardo is the transitional phase after death and before ones next rebirth when the consciousness is no longer connected to the physical body. After trawling the internet I found a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead that allowed me to see inside. It gave me one of those ah-ha moments - the  fragmentary multi-voice story telling format that Saunders used throughout his book, reflected the format used in this Buddhist classic.

Saunders made use of this device for both the historical and the ghostly sections of the book. I found it to be effective and affecting how he combined the fragments to make a kind of cohesive narrative whole.

I also wanted to know if the primary sources quoted by Saunders during the historical record sections of the novel were real or fictional. I found this review by Maureen Corrigan from earlier in the year that answered that question for me.

One thing bothers me about this extraordinary novel — more of a question, really, than a quibble. Throughout Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses chapters packed with quotes from historical sources. He gives citations for these historical sources and some are legit — like Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln, for instance. But other sources are made up. All the historical passages are tossed together indiscriminately.
It's not like Saunders is doing anything new here: novelists have been playing with historical narrative since the term "postmodern" was invented. But, I wonder if just in the past couple of months, our taste and tolerance for this kind of melding of fact and fiction has diminished?

There was a brief chapter early in the book, that I believe Saunders used deliberately to play with this idea about what is fact and what is fiction. His historical sources are talking about the moon the night of the White House dinner when Willie was extremely ill. Some recalled the 'beautiful moon', 'the brilliance of the moon' or 'the golden moon', while others remark that 'there was no moon that night', or 'a fat, green crescent hung above' or 'the night continued dark and moonless' or 'the full yellow moon hung among morning stars'.

When I read this section, I was reminded of the comment often made by police officers about the fickle nature of eyewitness accounts when at the scene of a crime, and how all the witnesses will describe the victim and the perpetrator in completely contrasting terms. The unreliability of our memories only intensifies as more time goes by.

Perhaps Saunders is trying to say that even primary sources cannot be trusted to tell the 'whole truth and nothing but the truth'?

The Lincoln Family 1861 - Willie is seated at the front.

The ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo are certainly not to be trusted. They're still very attached to the idea of their physical bodies. They have failed to grasp that they are in fact dead as they spend their time in bardo going over and over the thing that led them to this point. Knowledge and acceptance is what finally allows them to pass over with a 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' into the great unknown.

This will be a book that divides its readers. The many voices and the blurring of fact and fiction will annoy some and delight others.

I was one of those delighted.

The scenes of Lincoln's grieving were so very touching as were those featuring Willie coming to terms with his own death. Ultimately, Lincoln in the Bardo is a story about letting go. Letting go of the one you loved and letting go of the life you once lived.

Lincoln in the Bardo has been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.


  1. I had heard about this book but was hesitant to pick it up for a variety of reasons. Having read your review I'm ready to jump in. Thanks for sharing the background research!

    1. Oh good!! As I said it's not going to be to everyone's liking, but if you go in prepared then it will increase your chance of loving it.

      Mr Books tried to start the night we came back from an overseas holiday - he was exhausted & over-tired. Needless to say he didn't think much of it. I've hopefully convinced him to try again after a good nights sleep ­čśä


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