Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Book Review

Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

Author: George Saunders

Genre: Fiction

Lincoln in the Bardo is the fictional account of Abraham Lincoln’s one night at the cemetary where his dead 11 year old son has been laid to rest. The story of a father’s deep grief plays out in the backdrop of the Civil War.

Acvording to Tibetan tradition, bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth.

George Saunders, the master short story teller has delivered his first novel based on a historical fact, in an experimental form with stunning effect. It starts with Willie, the 11 year old son of Lincoln on his sickbed. The civil war is on but the White house is decked up for an opulent state reception. Through the night, Willie gets sicker and dies. Two nights later, the grieving President visits the cemetary where his son is temporarily interred, returning on at least two occasions to hold his dead son’s body. The book focuses on this night and the spirits present in the cemetary. They are in transition or in a ‘bardo’ and the story progresses through the voices of these spirits.

Review

If I were to sum up the book in one word, I would say, ‘Unusual’. Lincoln in the Bardo is unusual in content, form and style. The entire book spans only a single night in the cemetary where Willie’s body is kept. And yet, through the voices that tell the story, we watch entire lives being constructed in as little as a paragraph.

The narration of the story is through a plethora of voices; rather curiously embodied as distorted forms, hovering in the cemetary in that space between life and afterlife. They are the reluctant dead, dead but reluctant to face the finality of their farewell from the memories and sensations of the physical world.

Interspersed with this continuous narration, which sounds sometimes like a play and sometimes like a film script, are the references taken from historic sources for the purpose of moving the story forward.

What works well

Inspite of the many voices, the narrative is cogent and each character or voice is worked through very well.

Deep themes are explored, those of grief, of the lies we tell ourselves, of racism, even in the Bardo and our grasping of time-wanting more and more.

Lincoln in the Bardo is also a sensory feast that packs quite a punch. The imagery is fantastic, especially the veritable feast of sights and hallucinatory visions when the spirits are tempted to move on.

This is a book where I suspect that listening to the audiobook – the full cast of which is apparently an astonishing 166 people – will be a far superior experience to reading the text alone.

Verdict

A heartbreaking tale that holds up a mirror to the lives we live as well as an exploration of grief and death.

An excellent feast for your senses. Truly imaginative and innovative. Should not be missed.

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