Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders- Winner of Man Booker 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is no easy read. It is a book where the voices of spirits serve as the narrator; leaving you perplexed at most times. No wonder, I took over a month to complete reading it. The narration shuttles between subtle humor and being intense. Thus the book can surely not be categorized as a breezy read.

So is this book worth reading after all? Let’s get to the story first

In 350 odd pages, “Lincoln in the Bardo” recounts happenings of a single day- 25th February 1862. It was the day, Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln succumbs to Typhoid. In a cemetery in Washington DC, the young boy is laid to rest. Amidst cold stones of the graves and the eerie silence of the night, spirits of many others laid to rest in the very same cemetery rise. They rise to babble about life and death, about the state of society in times of the unpopular American civil war, under the governance of the then American President Abraham Lincoln. This cacophony of graveyard voices, describes situations of a small American community, living and struggling to overcome the difficulties inflicted in times of a civil war. The voices speak amongst each other. They meet, greet argue and discuss. Where some spirits such as the one of Hans Vollman lend an interesting tone to the conversation, a few other menacing ones drag conversations making you yawn a bit, well skip pages too.

Let’s get to the title

A Bardo is considered to be a transitional state between death and rebirth. Lincoln in the Bardo draws metaphoric connections to Willie and his father Abraham Lincoln. Willie is the Lincoln in the Bardo by virtue of having succumbed to death; Abraham Lincoln his father too is considered to be in a Bardo as, not only is he grieving his son’s death, he also needs to put up a brave front and lead the country through trying times.

The Critical Acclaim

Lincoln in the Bardo was critically acclaimed and also won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This experimental fiction was also in the list of top ten 2017 novels on Time magazine. This was reason enough for me to pick this book up. However, it failed to leave an impact. The primary reason was that I found the super natural chattering tedious to read. Most portions seldom made much sense, and it took me a while to piece conversations together. The concept seemed weird and I felt there was a lack of a clear-cut plot. The book also seemed to be oddly punctuated, which added to my confusion.

Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t my kind of read. If your interest lies in American history, this experimental writing may appeal to you.

*The book is available in paperback as well e-book format.

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  • Soumya Prasad

    350 pages. Drag conversations. Yawn. Skip pages.

    Well, this is enough for me to not pick this one up. Have been hearing a lot of positive reviews about it though. But, just like you American history is not for me.

  • Mayuri Nidigallu

    I like reading your book reviews, Ramya. They are honest and the best part about them is that you leave the reader to decide to read the book, or not. I love how you’ve worded the review of a book that was difficult to read.

  • Shilpa Gupte

    You know, that’s what I too think about books that make it to The List. They seem so heavy to handle and rarely hold our attention. I did find the idea of spirits talking about Life, but the rest of the review failed to make me add the book to my TBR list!
    Thank you for your honest review, Ramya!

  • Vidya Sury

    Interesting review. I saw the book cover in your Instagram feed. As Tulika rightly mentions, not all award-winning books appeal to everyone. The premise sounds unusual but yes, if it is tough to read, Sigh. Thanks, Ramya.

  • Obsessivemom

    Sometimes books that are critically acclaimed fail to leave an impact. Where’s the point in reading a book if it makes you struggle? Unless of course the story is gripping or the writing is beautiful – in which case you would probably enjoy it. Thanks for the review – doesn’t seem like a book I’d pick up either.

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