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2017 Man Booker longlist: Lincoln in the Bardo

lincoln in the bardo

Next up for our Shadow panel is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Our panel reviewed the book on the following criteria: 1) writing quality; 2) originality; 3) character development; 4) plot development; and 5) overall enjoyment. We’ve each provided mini-reviews and ratings. We hope you add your own thoughts and comments. Here are our ratings…

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
2017 Man Booker (longlist)
Published in: 2016
Judges – The full panel: Jen, Book Worm, Nicole, Andrew, Lisa, & Anita
Find it/buy it here: Lincoln in the Bardo

Synopsis (from Amazon): February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Jen’s Review: So far (I’ve read 7/13 books on the list), Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most original and creative books I’ve read. It’s probably no surprise that Saunders’ first novel would be wholly creative and original given his past portfolio. It’s creative in its unique narrative style (alternating between dialogue, letters, historical documents, etc) and in its content. I loved this book and yet I didn’t think it would make the longlist. I was overjoyed that it did make the list. Lincoln in the Bardo is a fantastic book that is able to find humor and hope in the darkest places: a parent grieving the loss of their child. I both laughed and cried while reading this book. You can read my full review here.

I took a few points off for character and plot development, but the focus of this book was more about the presentation of ideas than it was about a character study. Characters come and go and most are used as ways to advance certain ideas or add the the complexity of the story. There are 166 characters in the book so in-depth character analysis is not a primary goal. Saunders does brilliantly imagine the emotional status of Lincoln while he mourns the death of his son. All in all, a remarkable book and I’m rooting for it to make the shortlist. I highly recommend reading it along with listening to the amazing audio version. Here are my scores…

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Nicole’s Review:  I read this book twice, and obviously I loved it.  I read it first, listened second, and when I recommend it, that’s what I recommend doing.  The audio is so stellar, but I think you miss something in not getting the experience of reading it first.  Ultimately, I don’t imagine it will win, but happy it made the long list!

This is a ghost story. It’s historical fiction; a story of love; non-fiction.

It’s a tragedy and a comedy. An examination of grief.

I found the structure unique and wonderful and partially what made me love it so much. I think discovering the structure on your own is part of the surprise of this book. I couldn’t imagine anyone disliking it, but as I’ve read other reviews I see that it’s clearly is not for everybody so something to keep in mind. For me, it helped the book to move quickly, but at times it also confused me.

It’s Abraham Lincoln dealing with the death of his son, and in addition to the contemplation of grief it posits some interesting theories on life after death.

A POLITICAL ASIDE ….

For those who thought they’d never survive Obama (you did, congrats) and for those who think we will never survive Trump, this quote was in the book.

“You have seized the reins, made yourself dictator, established a monolithic new form of government which must dominate over the rights of the individual. Your reign presages a terrible time when all of our liberties shall be lost in favor of the rights of the monolith. The founders look on in dismay.”

——Darrel Cumberland, quoted in “The Villain Lincoln,” by R.B. Arnolds

This left vs. right thing is a longstanding tradition

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Lisa’s Review: When an author chooses to write a novel with an unusual structure, such as in Lincoln in the Bardo, he takes on a heavy burden.  The story itself needs to be worthy of the structural innovation, or else the novel becomes only about the structural innovation. I think this novel has its ups and downs, with parts of it brilliant, and parts of it less so. At its best, we understand how Abraham Lincoln’s loss of his son relates to his understanding of the sacrifices of war.  On the other hand, I did not understand the purpose of some aspects of the story, like the fact that children but not adults in this place are gradually encased in a bizarre carapace. So, even though I enjoyed this book and appreciated the creativity of the structure, I did not think it as perfect as some of George Saunders’ short stories. I took two points off: one for writing quality and one for character development. However, this book does set a new standard for originality, both in terms of structure and also setting.

Writing quality:4/5
Originality 5/5
Character development:4/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Book Worm’s Review:  This is the most original book I have read in years and I loved it. I found the first chapter slightly confusing and then as I realised how the narrative was working (alternating voices, historical documents and letters) I got into the swing of it. I was really impressed by how Saunders managed to link the historical documents and letters so that they formed a cohesive narrative in their own right with no bridging needed between each one.

Saunders creates a convincing world of life after death and even though we only meet them briefly I loved most of the “ghosts” who inhabit that world. How the ghosts are punished and how they convince themselves that they are not really dead makes for compelling reading.

At times this is a funny book yet always in the background is the knowledge that a child has died and his father is suffering unimaginable grief. The fact that his father is President Lincoln is less relevant to the novel than the fact that he is a grieving father who will forever be judged and be judging himself over the death of his son.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Andrew’s Review:  Having never read any George Saunders before, but being aware of his reputation, I was very excited to begin “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I was immediately struck by the unique style. The book reads more like a play; within each chapter, characters take turns as storytellers, each contributing a portion of the story from their unique perspective. It takes a few pages for the reader to adjust to this format, but eventually the narrative flows smoothly.

Conversely, the chapters of the book that provide historical background do not read as easily. Saunders liberally quotes from numerous historical texts to provide context for the fictional part of the story. In these chapters, I often found myself distracted by reading the sources he had quoted. As a history buff I enjoyed these portions of the book and was intrigued by how different people interpreted the same history, these chapters did not read as easily as the fictional portions of the story.

Ultimately I was disappointed with the book. Perhaps it’s because I don’t often think about the afterlife nor concern myself with what “comes next,” but Saunders’ description of purgatory didn’t spark my imagination nor did it raise any existential questions. I found some of the characters quite boring and often their soliloquies did nothing to advance the story. I kept waiting for Saunders to explore the big questions of morality, ethical behavior, and what it means to live a “good life,” but instead was left feeling flat. Frankly I skimmed through the last 50 pages looking for something, anything(!), that would provide context for deeper thought, but found nothing. Saunders is clearly an extremely talented writer, but this book felt like nothing more than a vessel for his lyrical prose and inventive style. Substantively it falls flat.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Character Development: 0/4
Plot Development: 1/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 11/20

Anita’s Review: Brilliant.  Original.  Experimental.  Cross Stephen King with a poet and throw in a smattering of the historical record.  Saunders’ first novel left me gasping.

Lincoln, devastated by the loss of his son to illness, visits the cemetery where his son is buried, and his visit has consequences that are far beyond anything Lincoln can imagine.  This book is the story of the consequences.  But it goes far beyond the fictional happenings to shed light on the human spirit and the pathos of being human.

The structure of the story is very unique, and I think it works, but you have to go into it with an open mind.  It’s not like any novel you’ve read before.  It’s somewhat like the script of a play and parts of it reminded me of poetry with stanzas.  It is not hard reading, but it requires attention.

I’ll admit that I was predisposed to like this book because I really thought Saunder’s Tenth of December was outstanding.  My initial take was that this book would get nominated for some big prizes.  And here we are.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 5/5
Character Development: 3/4
Plot Development: 3/4
Overall Enjoyment: 2/2
Total score: 18/20

Average score across all panelists: 16.8/20

Our Collective Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Next up: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. jesshodg #

    great reviews, thanks. Jen and Nicole – what are your reasons for not thinking it would/will make the longlist/shortlist/win if you love it so much?

    Liked by 1 person

    August 10, 2017
    • Judges don’t usually pick experimental novels that play around with structure. I though the structure would prevent it from getting selected. And it’s a popular choice, those don’t usually get picked either

      Like

      August 10, 2017
    • same with me. Popular choice … but, I haven’t read a lot of the books yet, so could change my mind. Also, established US based author could work against him.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 10, 2017
  2. Really interesting comments. I have this in my TBR pile and I think it’s going to have to move up the pile after reading this…

    Liked by 1 person

    August 10, 2017
  3. Tracy S #

    I read and listened to this as soon as it came out, and I loved it. It’s original, confusing, and stunning. It’s going to make the shortlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 10, 2017
    • Reading and listening is the way to go!

      Like

      August 10, 2017
  4. Nicole R #

    I must get to this. It is supposed to be rainy this weekend and Monday is a state holiday, so maybe I will splurge on the audio and listen while following along in print.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 10, 2017
    • Yes! I think you will like it. Definitely worth spending the money on the audio and reading along with print

      Like

      August 10, 2017
  5. I am really intrigued by this book, I haven’t read any of Saunders short stories but the whole premise of the story sounds pretty cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    August 10, 2017
    • I hope you like it. Do try the audio too. It’s great!

      Like

      August 10, 2017
  6. I can’t decide if I want to read this. It’s the sheer number of characters that is putting me off – doesn’t it make the novel very fragmented?

    Like

    August 11, 2017
    • @BookerTalk there are 3 main characters who narrate the main scenes the other characters are more like a backdrop, I had no problem reading the novel in terms of characters however the historical document sections while cleverly done are still fragmented to a certain degree.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 12, 2017
      • Thanks for that insight, I hadnt realised there were some leading characters. That would certainly help

        Liked by 1 person

        August 12, 2017

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