Lincoln in the Bardo – the first novel from celebrated US short story writer George Saunders – has racked up an impressive list of accolades since its release earlier this year. It’s been a number one New York Times bestseller, made the longlist for the Gordon Burn Prize for innovative storytelling and is widely tipped to take the prestigious Booker Prize when the winner is announced next week. As soon as you dive in, it’s clear to see why this weird and wonderful ghost story-cum-historical novel has caused such a storm.
Saunders takes as his inspiration the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, 11-year-old Willie, in 1862, at the height of the American Civil War. At the time, newspapers reported the grief-stricken President broke into his son’s tomb in the dead of night on several occasions to mourn over the boy’s corpse. Saunders takes this fragment of fact and runs with it, setting his story in the ‘bardo’ – a Purgatory-like realm borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism – where a host of disfigured, increasingly absurd spirits grapple for control of young Willie’s soul, while the boy touchingly awaits his father’s return.
Flicking through it for the first time, the unusual structure can be intimidating: it largely resembles a film script mixed with a variety of historical accounts, taken from diaries, history books and newspapers – some real, some invented. But don’t be put off – far from muddled, the effect is theatrical, original and engaging, bringing together a vast and varied cacophony of voices in a surprising way.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is Saunders’ ability to zip from the grotesque, cartoonish horror and surreal comedy of the bardo to a grave, regretful and reflective portrayal of Lincoln himself – as one of the greatest figures in modern history stands at a defining moment in the life of a nation. His grief holds the novel together and helps bring it to a surprising, powerful and tear-inducing conclusion.