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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders • Episode #8

Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghostly story that unfolds in a graveyard over the course of a single night. Narrated by a chorus of voices and historical sources this innovative novel invites discussion, and won the Booker Prize in 2017. In this episode we find out what Kate’s book club made of it. Were they baffled or bewitched by this multifarious cast of ghostly characters, and were they daunted by the profound sadness of the subject matter, the death of a much loved child.

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Heading over to East London we interviewed Michelle and Claire from the East London Feminist Book Club, who gave us some good ideas for how to manage a book club where everyone is learning as they go along.

As ever we end with a range of recommendations you won’t want to miss for your next read.

Listen via the media player above, or your own favourite podcast app using this link.

Book recommendations for Lincoln in the Bardo episode

Notes for Lincoln in the Bardo episode

If you enjoyed this episode try one of our Booker Prize discussion shows, in which we debate the shortlist and try to figure out which book should win.

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Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or how about one of George Saunders’ other books. Tell us your favourites.


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