Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
Author: George Saunders
Publication Date: March 2017 (This Edition)
Synopsis: February 1862. 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 strange purgatory – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – invisible to his father, bowed at the tomb. Within this transitional realm, where 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?
Review: I love following the Man Booker Prize and thought that this year, instead of standing idly by and watching it all unfold, I would get involved and pick up the books that have been listed as contenders. In all honesty, I have picked certain books to read from the list simply because:-
1. They aren’t all available in my library
2. There were some books on the list that, after reading the blurbs and looking into reviews, that they weren’t books that would personally interest me because of the genre type etc and I felt that I wouldn’t be able to give a fair review if I am going into it completely disinterested in the first place.
3. Time and lack of it.
So, the first book that I picked up was Lincoln in the Bardo and, to be completely honest, I have been so worried about writing this review because I have been struggling to find the right words to express the absolute breathtaking beauty of this book.
This book tackles the themes of grief and loss, ignorance, loneliness and, of course, the afterlife. It cleverly connects the living and the dead through factual sources and fictional characters, delivering a truly beautiful, heart-wrenching book that will leave you feeling destroyed and yet oddly satisfied. Through different collective sources, the loss of Willie is expressed objectively, there are very few who are personally grieving for the young boy and we never hear from any of the Lincolns themselves, except for Willie in the Bardo. However, when we switch to the Bardo and meet the fictional characters who reside there, the feelings of grief and loss are palpable as we are given an internal view of President Lincoln’s grief and devastation at the loss of his son, only then does it become subjective. Saunders’ ability to seamlessly transition between fact and fiction contorts the readers emotions; here you have a well known President of the U.S who has been humanised by grief and, even though logically you know that what you’re reading can’t possibly be true (I mean how could Saunders know what Abe was thinking and feeling at that time) you instinctively take it as truth due to the previous chapters which have all been based on factual research. His portrayal of Abe pulls at your heart strings because, even as the most powerful man on earth, he is still crippled by and powerless against death.
In the Bardo we meet three brilliant characters; Roger Bevins iii, Hans Vollman and Reverend Everly Thomas and it is through these characters that we experience life in the cemetery. It is important to note that this entire book, well the scenes at the Bardo, take place in the space of one night and these few hours are packed full of emotion. Each person has their own story to tell and, even though they are well aware that they live in a cemetery, everyone there, aside from the Reverend, are unaware that they’re actually dead, they simply believe that they are sick and that they will return to their other lives very soon. This in itself is utterly heartbreaking and, when you are invited to delve into each inhabitants past lives, their use of the present tense, such as “I have” or “I am” as well as calling their coffins their “sick box” shows that they’re not only in a grieving process themselves at being unable to get back to their previous lives but also in complete denial at their current situation. This point is driven home further by the interaction between Lincoln and Willie’s body; at one point he removes Willie’s body from its coffin and lovingly holds it, needing to be close to him due to his overwhelming grief. The ghosts at the cemetery crowd around Willie, Hans, Roger and the Reverend, feeding off this intense connection between father and son and begin shouting their stories at Willie in the hope that “when he gets back”, he will relay messages to family, friends who have forgotten them or will simply share their stories. This denial and unrealistic hope evokes such emotions of sympathy when reading because we, as the reader, know the truth and it also gives such a sombre realisation of, after death, the living just simply carry on living without you.
I really don’t want to give too much away because this book simply has to be read. The structure may not be for everyone but it is worth persevering with just for the absolute beauty of the words, the portrayal of life and life after death. As said before, grief is an integral part of this book and, at the end, Saunders will have you grieving alongside everyone else. It is a book that I put down and haven’t stopped thinking about, it is a book that has made me want to pick it back up straight away and live through it all over again, it is a book that, quite simply, has to be on the short list at the very least.
One thing I will take away from this book is this quote that will stay with me forever:
“Friend. We are here. Already here. Within. A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand , that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured. It costs you nothing. Why not try?”