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2017 Man Booker Shortlist: Lincoln in the Bardo

Over the next month, our panel will be giving their thoughts on each of the nominated shortlist books. We’ll tell you briefly what we think of the book, the reasons we think it might win, and the reasons why it might not win. First up is Lincoln in the Bardo, a book that our entire panel managed to read. Keep reading to see what we think about whether it will be our 2017 Man Booker winner.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Published:  Feb 2017 (US publication date)
Find it/buy it here: Lincoln in the Bardo

Amazon Synopsis: 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.

Jen’s Thoughts: I read this book when it first came out, before it made the longlist. I didn’t think it would make the longlist and I left it off my list of predictions. When it did make the longlist I realized that this year the judges seem to be more favorable toward less traditional narrative structures so I added it to my list of shortlist predictions. So essentially, I’ve been all over the place in terms of my predictions for this book. That said, I loved the book and it is by far the most creative book on the list.
Why it could win: The odds are in its favor. It’s listed as the favorite to take home the prize. It’s creative, smart, and pushes the boundaries of traditional narrative styles typically associated with literary fiction. And let’s not forget, it is written by George Saunders who is amazing.
Why it might not win: The favorite rarely wins. I think this is a great book but it also is a very popular book and popular books don’t typically win. I don’t really have any other good reasons why it might not win. It’s not my personal pick to win it all, but I wouldn’t complain if it did win.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: I read this book after it was nominated for the Longlist and I loved it. I didn’t expect it to make the Shortlist but I am very pleased that it did.
Why it could win: It is a unique way of telling a story and the way all the different narrative types are blended seamlessly into a cohesive whole is so clever it could justify winning.
Why it might not win: I have a different prediction for the winner, based on the fact that the judges tend to choose controversial books, and this book doesn’t match that criteria.

Nicole’s Thoughts: I read this book pre-publication before any hype and fell in love with it.  I thought the structure was fantastic, the story well told and the characters a lot of fun.  When the book was published I listened to the audio which was stellar.  David Sedaris was probably my favorite narrator, but there were many great ones.  This is how you do audio!  I still think this is a book to read first, listen second.
Why it could win: George Saunders.  Fun, original, beloved.
Why it might not win:  Old (white) guy from the US.

Anita’s Thoughts: My favorite of the shortlist!
Why It Could Win:  The structure of the book is innovative without taking away from the emotional impact or making the book less accessible.  It is George Saunders’ debut novel, but his other work is highly regarded.
Why It Might Not Win:  An American male won last year, and while that shouldn’t really matter, I fear it does.

Andrew’s thoughts: My immediate reaction upon completing this book was disappointment. I thought Saunders missed an opportunity to delve into the complex morality of a “life well lived” and the implications for the afterlife. However, after reading more of the longlist, I must say it was one of the more unique and creative books on the list.
Why it could win: The amount of work and imagination put into creating this book must have been staggering, and in a sense deserves to be rewarded. The sheer ingenuity also weighs heavily in its favor.
Why it might not win: This book failed to move me in any way. It didn’t lead me to think about the world in a new way nor did I feel particularly connected to any of the characters. While it’s clearly a creative masterpiece, is the story really that good? Does that matter?  I guess we will find out.

We want to hear from you. Have you read it? What did you think? Do you think it will win the 2016 Man Booker?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I recently moved to a non-public transportation area and now have to drive to work. I’m trying to get into audiobooks and put this one on my library hold list because I keep hearing how great the production is. I’m looking forward to it coming in so I cam judge its greatness…hopefully all the hype won’t spoil it for me!


    September 22, 2017
  2. Tracy S #

    I loved the creativity of this book! I think reading and listening is the best combination. I agree that it could easily win, but like Anita said, an American male won last year. I do think this is a strong contender for the Pulitzer, too.


    September 22, 2017
  3. I’ve got this one in my Audible queue and looking forward to hearing it with the outstanding cast of voices. However, very sad to see an open discussion of titles seemingly disqualified for an award based on age, sex and skin color. If this is the case I will henceforth boycott the Booker Prize winners.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 23, 2017
    • What do you mean? The judges have said that they do not make their decisions based on trying to balance gender, race, ethnicity, nationality. I know some of the panelists here may have mentioned those things as a reason for this book possibly not winning. I think they are generally although there may certainly be facing some pressure to pick a UK author this year. I do hope you like this book.


      September 23, 2017
    • Anita #

      I definitely didn’t mean to imply that there would be any purposeful discrimination, but in this day and age of being extremely careful NOT to discriminate on the basis of age, gender, skin color, or ethnicity, I think there could possibly be some subconscious resistance to selecting an author with the same characteristics as the most recent winner. To be honest, I think once you are down to the shortlist, you are really splitting hairs over which book is the winner. They’ve all been deemed excellent, and they are so different from one another . . .I could easily make a case for any of them even though I’m hoping for my own personal fave.


      September 25, 2017
  4. Good point about favourites not necessarily ending up the winner. I haven’t read any of the shortlisted books this year so no basis for knowing what could grab the title.


    September 23, 2017
  5. I’m halfway through this and so far, I’m with Andrew. For all that it’s supposedly about the death of a child and the struggle to come to terms with loss, I’m finding it pretty lacking in emotion. As an intellectual experiment with what you can do with the structure of the novel, it’s clever but not as interesting to me as Ali Smith’s playing with the form. Ooh, I might quote myself in my review with that!


    December 19, 2017

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