Lincoln in the Bardo

23 March 2017 Books

Lincoln in the Bardo

Much admired for his short stories, American author George Saunders makes an ambitious debut as a novelist with this unique exploration of grief and denial.

A genre-bending take on historical fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo is set in early 1862, as President Abraham Lincoln loses his 11-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever while the Civil War reaches new heights of bloodshed. It’s told in a sort of oral history combining thoroughly researched real-life sources with characters of Saunders’ own devising, including a quirky procession of ghosts populating the purgatory in which Willie finds himself trapped.

That dizzying, polyphonic approach enables the author to tap the giddy spectrum of human experience, with a roaring chorus of opinions closing in on all sides.

As a moral fable it’s oddly timely, touching on collective grieving (as experienced online today), America’s deep divisions, the plague of racism and sexism, and even pre-internet trolling. At once bawdy and heartbreaking, it’s a profound study in perspective wrapped in a joyfully comic affirmation of life.

Doug Wallen