Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders | Book Review

Lincoln in the Bardo book cover

Lincoln in the Bardo was the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, and it’s been on my to-read list since then. It tells the story of Abraham Lincoln during the loss of his son, which came at a time when the American Civil War was in full swing. Little Willie Lincoln is just 11 years old when he dies, and he finds himself trapped in a ghostly realm between life and rebirth, along with a bunch of bickering, whinging, whining ghosts. The novel is told through a series of excerpts from newspaper reports, books, journals and diaries, as well as the first-person narration of various ghosts who witness Lincoln entering his son’s crypt and cradling his body.

It wasn’t my cup of tea. I don’t know if I had my expectations held too high, given that it was a Man Booker Prize winner, or if I’m just too dense to appreciate this branch of avant-garde literary fiction. It might be a bit of both. But I couldn’t get on board with the style and the structure.

It felt too disjointed. Just as I was getting invested in a scene or a moment in time, I was pulled right out of it and shown something different. At times I found the endless ramblings of the ghosts to be too much. Too long. Too irrelevant to the main plot. Too distracting. This was heightened by the literal layout of the text. In any one scene the first-person point of view can move anywhere between two and, I don’t know, twenty-two different characters. Each time the point of view changes, there’s a break in the text to indicate a new segment, with the name of the character who is narrating printed below each segment. I often found myself without a clue as to who it was narrating until their segment was finished, which had me lost and having to reread and working too hard to figure it all out.

I found it horribly disorientating, and perhaps that’s a stylistic choice that Saunders was going for, but all it did was make me feel confused and, subsequently, stupid. See, lots of other people like this book. Lots of other people “get it”, so why don’t I? Am I not clever enough? Am I not well-read enough? Books don’t usually send me spiralling into a pit of self-loathing when I don’t get on with them, but holy shit, this one did.

I will say that the book picked up for me in the second half, and that might be because I was somewhat acclimatised to the style by that point. However, I still found myself wanting to skim over swathes of text. It felt a bit like I was reading an extended epilogue, waiting for the plot to really kick in. I couldn’t find myself getting attached to any of the characters – not even Lincoln and his son – and felt like I was merely reading a history book rather than a fictional retelling of a moment in history.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think it’s a “bad” book or that it’s undeserving of all its praise. It probably is. I can, in many ways, see the book’s appeal and the reasons for its success. We all have different tastes, and I suppose my literary taste buds just aren’t built for Lincoln in the Bardo. So, if you’ve been curious to read the book, I’d still recommend giving it a go – you might come away with a totally different opinion of it than I. And if nothing else, it’s an experience!

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