George Saunders’s debut novel is perhaps the oddest best-seller you’ll pick up this year – 160 characters leading the reader through a story of love, loss, death and Abraham Lincoln. It’s not as difficult as it sounds.
For Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders builds a story around the real life death of Abraham Lincon’s 11 year old son, Willie. When Willie dies, he finds himself in a kind of limbo in Oak Hill Cemetery, along with hundreds of other ghosts who record the facts of his death, as well as telling us the circumstances of their own lives.
If keeping track of the multitude of characters wasn’t enough, Saunders quotes witness testimonies, academics, newspaper articles, and letters to build up the story. Initially, I thought this got in the way of any kind of flow: so many brief quotes might give the thing a stop-start feel, but somehow Saunders overcomes this with ease – all of the different voices become spellbinding, mesmerizing the reader in the same way a school of fish or flock of birds might.
All of this is pretty good – just the voices of the ghosts themselves would make for a decent novel as it is (their stories are easily moving and funny enough to get 350 pages out of). But Saunders has an ace up his sleeve: Abraham Lincoln himself.
When Honest Abe enters the cemetery, grieving for his son, three spirits are able to pass through him and glimpse his thoughts – Lincoln is struggling to find a path as the nation tears itself apart, as his grief overwhelms him, and his faith is shaken. Abe’s introduction kicks Lincoln in the Bardo into a higher gear, bringing an emotional depth that you’d probably have been expecting earlier given the subject matter.
The introduction of Abe might be the ace up George Saunders’s sleeve, but it’s also the source of a flaw: Saunders uses Abe’s grief as the motivation for freeing the slaves. It’s a turn that reduces the Civil War and slavery.
Still, in the end , Lincoln in the Bardo comes up trumps.
So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?
Let me know in the comments!