Man Booker Book Review 1: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Once again this year, I have set myself the goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist. The shortlist of six was announced on 13 September and the winner will be named on 17 October. The title and description of this book did not appeal immediately and it would probably not have been the book I started with, but the others took a few days to arrive and this was the one that was available in the library, so by default it became my starting point.

Lincoln in the Bardo
I’m sorry, I just don’t get it!

George Saunders is a well-established American writer, winner of the Folio Prize in 2014 (for Tenth of December, a collection of short stories) and on the back of my copy of this book are some impressive quotes from literary heavyweights: “A writer of arresting brilliance and originality” Tobias Wolff, “A morally passionate, serious writer…He will be read long after these times have passed.” Zadie Smith. High praise indeed. But this book? I just don’t get it.

The premise of the book is the untimely death of Willie Lincoln, eleven year old son of US President Abraham Lincoln in February 1862, whilst the American Civil War is raging. The Bardo is, according to Tibetan tradition, a kind of interim state that the dead enter prior to their admission to the final place where they will spend the afterlife. The Bardo, as imagined in this book, is a riotous place where the spirits, from different ages and social strata, mingle and squabble. Specifically, here, they argue over Willie’s soul and are fascinated by the vigil that Abraham Lincoln undertakes beside his son’s coffin. The cemetery (or perhaps more accurately the Bardo) is populated by a cast of characters who could easily have stepped out of a Victorian travelling circus; a mixture of grotesques and rogues, troubled souls and tragic misfits. Some are more fully realised than others; Hans Vollman. Roger Bevins iii and the Reverend Everly Thomas are our primary narrators, whose background stories are revealed in some detail, but many others make only brief appearances and are more like caricatures.

The structure of the book is very unusual, like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is no coherent narrative, as such, the story is told from the multiple perspectives. These not only include the restless spirits, but for the events that precede Willie’s death, or outside the cemetery, they are told in short paragraphs by third party observers, reporters and historians. What was most interesting to me, was how different some of these accounts were, despite the writers all seeming to have been present at the event described.

This book has left me feeling like I’m missing something. I know that it has been highly praised, but I’m afraid I just am not seeing anything particularly innovative here. To me it’s all just a muddle, with no story, where nothing really happens. There is one central theme, which seems to be that the dead do not rest easily until the living let them go, allow them to realise their ‘deadness’, but I’m not sure that single point is worthy of a whole book. And I didn’t really find the cast of spirits very entertaining or enlightening. I’ve read many books which have challenged form, which have taken some re-reading to fully appreciate. But for me, this book offers nothing that I want to delve back into. If it wins the ManBooker, I may need to go back to Literature School!

I dislike being critical. Did you find something of value in this book? What is it I’m missing?!

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.

My 100th post! (And the Man Booker shortlist)

This is my 100th post and I feel it’s quite fitting that I should be writing on the very day that the Man Booker 2017 shortlist has been announced. Last year, I set myself the task of trying to read all six books on the shortlist before the prize winner was announced. I managed three and a half! This year, I’ve cleared the decks and am going for it again – all six books by 17 October…34 days.

If you haven’t seen the shortlist, here it is:

 

Autumn and Exit West have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. Autumn is a post-Brexit novel and is about the fissures that became apparent in UK society after that referendum, seen through the eyes of elderly Daniel and youthful Elisabeth. It may help with understanding this social turmoil. Exit West is also about social and political turmoil and its effect on the lives of ordinary people, lovers Nadia and Saeed, forced to flee their homeland when it is torn apart by civil war, and seek refuge in the West.

Veteran prizewinner Paul Auster’s latest novel, 4 3 2 1, has won praise for the deft handling of a complex storyline in which he explores four possible paths that an individual’s life could take. It’s the longest book on the list by some distance! Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the first venture into fiction by a well-established writer and is a fictionalised account of the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his eleven year old son at the start of the American Civil War.

Finally, from two less well-known writers, to me anyway, A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which is about a fourteen year old girl living a sheltered life in rural Minnesota, with unusual parents, and her association with a new family that moves into the area, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable truths. And Elmet  by Fiona Mozley, another first novel from a young British writer, is also about the effects of growing up in an unusual family and how that prepares people for a challenging world.

I haven’t read any of these (no head start for me this year then!), so I can’t judge the shortlist at the moment, but I am surprised by some of the omissions. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are everywhere at the moment and have been highly praised. It’s always surprising to see Zadie Smith left out of this kind of list, huge talent that she is. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here in June,is possibly the best book I have read this year and I’m astonished that it’s not shortlisted. That novel will be my benchmark for judging these.

Anyone care to join me in the shortlist challenge?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and for us to connect on social media.