‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo book coverThere can be little doubt that the Man Booker judges picked a real winner in awarding this year’s prize to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders [London: Bloomsbury, 2017]. This is a highly original and beautifully written book.

The author recounts the twenty-four hours that covered the sad death of Willie Lincoln, 10-year-old son of the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Saunders draws on a host of contemporary sources using often only one line quotations (all fully cited) to build a picture of the scene and the times from a great variety of people. Interwoven through the chapters, however, are the voices of the ‘souls’ in the ‘bardo (a Tibetan word for limbo apparently) who populate the graveyard and who have a completely different perspective on what is happening. I doubt if anyone who has not already read a far too revealing review will be able to imagine the original, imaginative and poetic way this is done. In my time I have read not a few books and I have never read one like this before.

Apart from the author’s sheer inventiveness, the quality of the language is amazing. Let me illustrate it with one mood-setting passage from near the end.

Though the things of the world were strong with me still. / Such as, for example,: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; towelling off one’ clinging shirt post-June rain. / Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. / Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. / A bloody roast death-red on a platter; a hedgetop under-hand as you flee late to some chalk-and-woodfire-smelling schoolhouse.

 

Those delicious hyphenated descriptors put me so much in mind of Dylan Thomas and the whole narrative stands comparison with Under Milk Wood. Buy this and revel in it!

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