Reviewed by Ben at Angus & Robertson Bookworld:
Writing a decent novel isn't easy. It's so difficult, in fact, that you'd have to have gone completely mad to seriously attempt it. This is why, for so long, I've been very jealous of George Saunders. This guy started his writing career later in life than most, got work published in America's premier magazines, put out one of the best collections of short fiction I've ever read, got awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (half a million US dollars with virtually no strings attached), and went on for two decades writing only short stories, novellas and essays to much critical success. How does an author do so well in life all the while avoiding that terrible tumult that is writing a novel? The only way to find out is to see the quality of his work for yourself. If you haven't already, go and get a copy of both Civilwarland in Bad Decline and The Tenth of December. They're simply amazing.
When it was announced that George, perhaps suffering the doldrums of his own success, had decided to subject himself to the catastrophic pain of writing a novel, I leaped for joy. This was because I knew that in this, his first novel, we'd get to witness a well-seasoned and truly inventive writer engaging with the conventions of the form for the first time. I don't think anyone had any idea of what to expect, we all just hoped that it wouldn't be awful.
Lincoln in the Bardo is not awful. It's fantastic. It's an intensive study of how we grapple with death based on the true events of one night during the worst period of the American Civil War. President Lincoln, grieving the loss of his eleven-year-old son to a violent fever, went into the cemetery where he was earlier laid to rest and cradled the dead child in his arms. This haunting and deeply human moment from history retold by George in the most haunting and human of ways. The narrative is built up on the first person accounts of an endless expanse of characters, plenty of them are verbatim historical accounts, plenty of them a fictional accounts, and the bulk of those are ghosts.
This ambitious project makes for a strange and challenging read but when these cacophonous voices join together in a kind of chorus, the story comes alive for the reader and you are hurtled through pages completely absorbed. Lincoln In The Bardo is acutely observed, deeply thoughtful, moving and funny. It's unlike anything I've read before. Open it up and you'll be delighted.