Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

“George Saunders has given us a novel unlike any other, and one that will surely be talked about for years to come.”

The ghost story is arguably one of the most versatile tropes of fiction. It can be terrifying, romantic, passive or aggressive, somber, sweet, or trite. It can also be used like a knife in the heart to express the horror and power of grief.

George Saunders uses the ghost story, (as well as every other tool in his vast and effective literary toolbox) for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The award-winning short fiction author creates an unusual and unique experience for readers, and takes us into one night in a cemetery after eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln is interred in a borrowed crypt. The story is told in the voices of the graveyard–dozens rise every night from their “sick-boxes” and share their sad tales of life before, ready to bend the ear of any new arrival.

Printmaker Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III (who has several sets of eyes, several noses, and hands that shoot out in all directions), and the haunted Reverend Everly Thomas make up our three protagonists as they first introduce us, then guide us into Saunders’s incredibly rendered–and incredibly bizarre–world. They don’t shy away from the gruesome or grotesque, nor do they blink an eye at the profoundly heartbreaking. Like a cross between Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and an adult version of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, the residents of the cemetery each in turn take the stage and narrate the events surrounding Willie Lincoln’s afterlife.

Saunders plays to his strengths. As a short story author, his characters are always built more out of a strong voice and point-of-view, and the characters in Lincoln in the Bardo are no different. This book is a master-class for writers looking to see how powerful a tool point-of-view can be. There’s a schizophrenic-quality to the novel, but for those who get into the grove of what Saunders is attempting to do, they’re in for a deeply moving story about humanity and loss. Injecting horror and weird fiction details into the story, Lincoln in the Bardo uses genre to its fullest effect and those unexpected shocks and twists make this a very satisfying read.

The boldness of Saunders’s writing might also be its greatest weakness. The unusual way the story unfolds has the potential to turn off some readers. It might feel like one of those have-to books for a literary degree, and offers a challenge that some just won’t care to take. Unlike a play, each passage is defined by voice, only telling a reader who the narrator was at the end of each section. It can easily become overwhelming, and you can’t help but wonder if an audio version of the novel wouldn’t work better to help define the voices.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an experience–and a rewarding one, for those willing to attempt it. There is true horror in the book–the deeply visceral emotion–wielded like a scalpel, reminding readers that nightmares can come in many forms. Ignorance. Cruelty. Illness. And what can happen when you open your heart to love. George Saunders has given us a novel unlike any other, and one that will surely be talked about for years to come.

JAKE MARLEY

 

Publisher: Random House
Paperback (368 pp)
Release Date: 14 February 2017

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