Book clubs: New in paperback
George Saunders, a master practitioner of the short story, delivers an extraordinary first novel with Lincoln in the Bardo. In 1862, with the Civil War under way, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, succumbs to typhoid fever. He is buried in a cemetery in Georgetown, where Lincoln, wild with loss, goes to be with his son. Saunders uses history as the springboard for the rest of Willie’s story, which takes place in the bardo—a sort of limbo where the young boy coexists with ghosts who aren’t quite ready to leave the world behind. Willie’s experiences in the transitory spiritual realm stand in contrast to the goings-on of material reality, from Lincoln’s grief to the unfolding war that is sundering the nation. Even as he plumbs the nature of a father’s sorrow, Saunders brings a sense of playfulness to the ghostly proceedings. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, his narrative draws upon elements of history and fabulism. It’s a daring novel that defies easy classification.
WELCOME TO NEW YORK
Historical-fiction buffs will happily surrender to Francis Spufford’s sweeping debut novel, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, a spirited narrative set in the 18th century. Richard Smith, 24 years old, arrives in New York from London and proceeds to cause a stir. He ruffles the feathers of Lovell, a marketeer in Golden Hill (where the financial district now stands), to whom he proffers a bill for 1,000 pounds sterling. Over dinner, he offends Lovell’s lovely daughter, Tabitha. Believed to be a papist, Richard is chased by a gang through the unsavory quarters of the city. When he’s rescued by Septimus Oakeshott, a government official, Richard becomes caught up in New York’s political turmoil. Meanwhile, the real purpose of his arrival in America remains a mystery—one that’s central to the novel. Writing in the dialect of the time, Spufford constructs a narrative with plot twists aplenty and an overall tone of good humor. This rousing novel is a rewarding adventure from start to finish.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s hypnotic novel The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a Georgia plantation who’s determined to make her way to freedom. When she learns of the Underground Railroad from Caesar, a new slave from Virginia, she teams up with him to escape the plantation and find a new home. Whitehead fantastically portrays the Underground Railroad as a functioning mode of transport, with engineers and miles of tracks under the earth. As they travel the railroad, pursued by slave hunters, Cora and Caesar make their way across the South in a dangerous quest for freedom. Whitehead’s visionary narrative includes the stories of Cora’s mother, Mabel, as well as Ethel, who provides sanctuary along the way. Rich in detail and assured in its historical conceit, this is a beautifully wrought speculative tale that’s destined to become a classic.
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.