One of my January reads came about after I signed up to an online Guardian Book Club with George Saunders. I had not heard of George before signing up for it, but it was a gamble well worth taking. Not only was the book, Lincoln in the Bardo, an interesting (if not strange) read, but George was an amazing character to be the center of attention. He was likeable, interesting, and engaging. I could have listened to him for much longer than we had.
About Lincoln in the Bardo
“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 returned to the crypt several times alone 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 thrilling, 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.”
My thoughts on the book
Lincoln in the Bardo is one of those books that you can’t possibly get into, understand, and enjoy within the first few chapters. I’ll be honest, I was entirely confused for the first, say third, of the book. Then, suddenly, it clicked. It started to make sense and I started to enjoy it. By the time I finished it, the book probably sits alongside Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi in regards to enjoyability and strangeness.
During the book club talk, George mentioned that there are over 160 unique voices that appear in the story. A feat I imagine wasn’t easy to execute, however, he admitted that he just ‘let them talk’. There is one particular character in the book who did something in his life that wasn’t good but his story is never told – George admits that the character’s story didn’t want to be told.
Overall, Lincoln in the Bardo is an exhilarating read, albeit difficult. I am definitely interested in reading more by George.
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