Lincoln in the Bardo
By: George Saunders
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
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.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
Fun fact: I was originally planning on bringing this book with me when I went on holiday to Portugal a few weeks ago but decided to start reading it instead as it was sort of just staring at me balefully (plus, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be too hefty a read on the plane).
Well, this was quite an interesting novel, wasn’t it? The structure of the novel alone, told by excerpts from the perspectives of characters to newspaper clippings, personal journals and statements, etc., really made the story something of an experience. Sometimes it can be pretty distracting and I can see why reactions to this book can be divided–there’s some instances throughout the book where a character’s perspective sort of just veers off (the post-modern stream-of-consciousness–which totally makes sense from the perspectives of ghosts, or even in the shoes of characters, really–doesn’t help matters), can be distracting, and a complete turn-off. But on the whole it works, especially as characters start drifting in and out and just highlights the perspectives from the supernatural realm.
The story itself, surprisingly enough, is pretty straight forward: takes placein one night more or less as President Lincoln returns to his son’s crypt a few times to hold his dead son’s body. It’s a story of mourning, of processing that grief, of understanding what has happened, the love you have/had and lost, of life and death and memory and how the living remember you. One of the national reviewers described it as a modern day ghost story, and it is: you don’t just read about Lincoln’s grief or Willie trying to understand what’s happening to him in the afterlife, but it’s about the dead, about how they perceive themselves, how they are remembered and what they remember. There were some chilling moments that were indeed rather haunting and sad and that left me remembering about those loved ones who had passed on.
Overall Lincoln in the Bardo was an interesting read and likely the most unique book I’ve read so far this year. Yeah, there were a few moments that I didn’t really care for, but the themes it touches on were very interesting, and I grew to really care for the characters at the end. I can see why it stood out for the Man Booker Prize judges last year (though I haven’t read the other books nominated). Definitely worth checking out if you’re into literary novels.