Thursday, 9 August 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Sanders (2017)


One of the most lauded historical novels of the last 5 years, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Man Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d heard the word ‘experimental’ and so anticipated something clever and well-researched, replete with facts, footnotes and intertextual references.


Instead Lincoln in the Bardo was one of the most powerful fictionalisations of grief I’ve encountered—private grief for a dead child and public grief for a country at war with itself. This is a novel that defies the conventions of the form. We are used to entering the mind and world of one protagonist or at least one character at a time, but here we are treated to a cacophony of voices—some real, others imagined, some ‘living’, others dead.

The central story concerns Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to come to terms with his son Willie’s death in 1862, but the novel soon becomes a tapestry of other stories—of a man who died before consummating his marriage to a younger wife, of a couple who were killed while intoxicated, trampled by a horse and carriage, of the black inhabitants of the cemetery’s mass grave.

George Saunders (1958-)
In the opening pages the novel reads like a play. I flicked to find out which character each block of text was attributed to, trusting that my investment would pay off. And it did. Soon I could identify many of the speakers from dialogue cues alone and could follow the logic as the ghosts interrupted each other. Saunders’s imaginative approach to the afterlife, his mixture of the uncanny and the familiar, is unique in itself, as he paints a world we come to understand more than the souls who haunt and describe it.

Perhaps because of this, the scenes in the cemetery were more effective for me than the other narratives—letters, snatches of memoir, history books. And the macro story—of war and of America’s political climate—less compelling that the human drama of filial death and parental despair. But overall Lincoln in the Bardo is a triumph.

In her Reith Lectures, Hilary Mantel said that when embarking historical fiction, writers must ask themselves one question: “Can these bones live?” Saunders brings historical characters to life from beyond the grave in a way we’ve never seen before.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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