Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

The cover, with curling green vines and a sepia photo of a child, is what first attracted my attention to this book. The fact that I didn’t know what a ‘bardo’ was, was the second riveting factor. The third was that it was a Man Booker prize winner, but the clincher was that it was magic realism. I was hooked.

Author: George Saunders

Story: President Lincoln and his wife Martha lose their young son Willie. He is temporarily interred into the crypt of another family, and thereafter the grief-stricken father comes to visit his son’s body a few more times. The story unfolds over the course of one day, and mostly takes place in the graveyard, where departed souls are stuck in a limbo between life and death.

Many of the characters are these departed souls, and their adamant refusal to either move on, or accept that they are dead, forms a large part of the narrative. Many have hideous deformities specific to their thoughts and desires, but all are united in the belief that they are alive; just very sick.

The limbo is bardo, a Tibetan term. The main story is relatively straightforward, but the bulk of the narrative switches between characters, their lives before death, and their decision to remain tethered to life.

Writing: The language was slightly tricky, because I have recently opted to stick to modern fiction, and the styles of Lincoln’s time are vastly different. That being said, the trick was not to get bogged down in the structure of the novel, which is rather strange. It reads a bit like a play, rather than a novel, and for a time I was terribly confused.

I would have thought that the story was peculiar enough without having to structure the writing in the form of dialogues and source/reference quotations. And yet, there it was.

I also found some of the actions of the characters, clearly meant to be deep symbolism, incredibly baffling. I guess I should put that down to becoming more literal in my old age.

Pace: At the end of the book, I thought it could have been massively condensed without losing too much of the main arc. There were so many secondary characters, I lost the ability to keep track of them, never mind their stories. It was fortunate that I was on holiday when reading this, because I didn’t have any distractions to use as excuses to put away a book that was no doubt extremely interesting, but difficult to actually read.

Conclusion: My review may sound quite negative, but I did enjoy the book immensely. Once I got over my discomfort of the unfamiliar structure and the old-timey language, I was quite happy to see the events unfold in front of me. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes new approaches to literature; although I cannot say with any certainty that it is indeed new. Definitely worth a read.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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