Why a novel about Abraham Lincoln’s son is the Book(er) of the Year


George Saunders’ magnificent first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

The Man Booker Prize was established in Britain in 1969, and is the recipient of a remarkable reputation for being one of the most prestigious literary prizes available. Awarded every year for the best original novel written in the English language, and published in the UK, the winner is guaranteed international success and acclaim, and around £50, 000, which also makes it one of the richest literary prizes in the world. The prize is accompanied by a litany of revered novelists, with notable winners including Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and high class connections – the 2017 prize was presented by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

And this year, the esteemed award goes to a novel by the name of Lincoln in the Bardo.

Written by George Saunders, the novel has met great critical acclaim – The New York Times Book Review called it a ‘luminous feat of generosity and humanism’, Publishers Weekly stated that it was ‘mesmerising’ and ‘Dantesque’, while acclaimed British novelist Zadie Smith proclaimed it simply, ‘a masterpiece’.

Although the title may instantly conjure up images of the famed American President, te Lincoln in question is not, in fact, Abraham Lincoln, but his eleven-year-old son, Willie. While the American Civil War was raging, President Lincoln’s son succumbed to a fever and was laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Lincoln, struck numb by grief, paid several visits to the crypt to hold his son’s body.

Saunders was taken by the story, which had gripped him in a way that caused him to carry it around for twenty years, hesitant to take the step into novel-writing. Ultimately, deciding that he didn’t want to ‘be the guy whose own gravestone would read ‘Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt’’, he began work on a novel.

He was also perfectly primed to become the second American writer in a row to win the Man Booker Prize. A winner of the National Magazine Award for Fiction for his short stories in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, he also received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006, as well as countless other awards and accolades. Despite having an illustrious writing career, his repertoire was strictly limited to short stories – Lincoln is his first novel.

With a strong vision of ‘a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà’, Saunders constructed his emotional tale around one of those nights, documenting the supernatural struggle that commences over the young Lincoln’s soul by a myriad of ghosts who are all stuck in the bardo – a concept drawn from Tibetan Buddhism, referencing Saunders’ religious affiliation as a Nyingma Buddhist, that refers to the transitional state between death and rebirth. The ghosts argue and quarrel over the soul of Lincoln’s son, while revealing their own tales in a dizzying array of alternating voices and perspectives.

Saunders commented that the ghosts were ‘stuck because they’d been unhappy or unsatisfied in life’, and that the ‘greatest part of their penance is that they feel utterly inessential – incapable of influencing the living.’ In doing so, Lincoln mixes history with supernatural and fictional elements, to make a wildly exhilarating tale that is at times both humorous and poignant. It explores the duplicity of grief Abraham Lincoln felt at the death of his son, coupled with the cataclysmic loss of life in the Civil War.

And the novel sets him up well. The movie rights have already been sold, while the novel itself has garnered a host of celebrity fans, with the 166 narrators of the audiobook including Susan Sarandon, Ben Stiller, and Lena Dunham.

Whether Saunders publishes another novel is something only time can tell. But, as The National says, Lincoln in the Bardo is ‘unlike anything you’ve ever read’, and it would be remiss to give the widely celebrated novel a miss.

If you’d like to read the novel, head over to Booktopia for 25% off.

(Feature image from NPR)