Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Tuesday 17 October 2017 by

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, Book, Reading, Bloomsbury

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Publishing by Bloomsbury

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?

~*~

It’s been a long time since Lincoln in the Bardo landed in my lap, and I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me this long to read it. Recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of the death of Willie Lincoln (President Lincoln’s son) – but not as you would expect it.

A ‘bardo’ is a state of consciousness between another consciousness, and this is where we meet Willie; in the bardo between life and death. Populated by spirits not ready to move on, poor Willie has to come to terms with his new state of being, all the while watching his father mourn. These Dantesque souls are trapped, by one means or another, unable to move on and unable to return to their bodies. It is these spirits that endeavour to help young Willie through his transition.

The narrative is passed from hand to hand through a dizzying range of characters – although there are three that dominate the story; a gay man who has committed suicide, an elderly reverend, and a middle-aged printer who was killed by a falling beam. These characters each have their own tales of woe to tell, and often vie for attention on the page. From the beginning, when we learn of Willie’s illness and subsequent death (anchored in real and contemporary testimonies), to his battle with the spirit world in which he finds himself, the other characters jostle and cry out to be noticed.

By its very nature, you positively skim the page, the words tumbling out and around you as clamorous as the spirits themselves. This can be baffling at times, requiring a careful re-read of a page here and there, but for the most part manages to build up the plot to its immense size and scope with relative ease. This does make plot holes and weaker moments that much more noticeable however, the jump from Lincoln’s grief to the spirits in the bardo often jarring and too simplistic. There is a certain levity at times that can be disconcerting.

But this book has been popular with critics for a reason – stylistically unlike most contemporary novels, it pushes the boundary of what is deemed an acceptable literary fiction construct, yet never sways in to the contrived. It’s a hard thing to balance.

Peppered with fact, speculation and pure fantasy, Lincoln in the Bardo reads like a scrapbook – a potted collection of a period of time that no one seems to really know about. It’s in equal turns fascinating and a delight, without ever straying too far in to disbelief. To read, it takes a while to get used to the narrative, the racing between the characters and the dichotomy of Willie’s plight (often both frightful and comic) against Lincoln’s grief.

A slow start, with a hurried finish, and this book is an unexpected favourite. I heartily recommend dipping your toes in this unusual novel.

 

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher

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