Lincoln in the Bardo is the second novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist, and one that I was intrigued by when it was first published earlier this year.
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?
Lincoln in the Bardo is told from multiple perspectives, and whilst this in itself isn’t unusual, the structure Saunders has chosen is an original one, with each sentence / paragraph etc. clearly marked as to who is speaking (something akin to a play), and with characters often finishing one another’s statements. This may sound confusing and a little disjointed, but once I was into the rhythm and the structure of the narrative, I barely noticed it, and I found that the unique style worked very well.
Additionally, for the sections not focused upon the cemetery, where much of the narrative takes place, the writing is depicted as being from various reports, articles and books about the time. I did look up a few of these, and found them to be fictional, (as far as I could tell from Google!), although they do sound very much like official records – I can’t say whether they are all figments of Saunders’ imagination, but the ones I looked up did seem to be, and I thought them cleverly done.
Of the multitude of characters, there are some voices that are used more frequently, with more time taken over their backstories. I found that each one had a distinct voice, and that there was little risk of confusion as to who was speaking at any given time (even without the labelling to say who was speaking). The characters we hear from are all languishing in the Bardo, which is something like a Tibetan purgatory, these characters being unwilling or unable to accept their condition, even referring to their coffins as “sick boxes”, rather than using terminology more indicative of where they are. These are people who can move on, yet choose not to, perhaps delaying their judgement:
We are shades, immaterial, and since that judgement pertains to what we did (or did not do) in that previous (material) realm, correction is now forever beyond our means. Our work there is finished; we only await payment.
This is a quick and rewarding read if you’re able to look past the slightly odd structure, which I imagine might grate on some readers, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this went on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐