“An original father-son tale that expertly blends history and fiction (and even the supernatural), Lincoln in the Bardo explores grief, loss, life, death.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
It’s hard to categorise exactly what genre George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo falls into. On the one hand, you could consider it a historical novel in that it’s clear its author has gone to great lengths to research the book’s background and offers up numerous quotes and citations from a plethora of essays and books (some of which are fictional) written about Abraham Lincoln. However, it is also a fantasy book which explores the supernatural and much of the action takes place in the Bardo, an intermediate space between life and rebirth depicted in certain schools of Buddhism. It might seem strange to mix historical facts with the supernatural, but then Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel which is undeniably strange, though not necessarily in a bad way.
The novel begins on the night of young William ‘Willie’ Lincoln’s death and follows Abraham Lincoln as he visits his son’s crypt in the night to hold him one last time and try to make sense of his loss, whilst also searching for the strength to lead America out of the bloody civil war that rages on. Meanwhile, in the Bardo, Willie wakes to find himself in a strange purgatory where most of the other inhabitants don’t even realise they’ve died. They see their coffins as ‘sick boxes,’ prescribed by their doctor to help them recover, and they still believe that sooner or later they’ll be able to return to their loved ones.
The story is told from the perspective of three of the Bardo’s residents who try to acclimatise young Willie to his new surroundings whilst taking an interest in the tall stranger who keeps returning to his son’s body. The dead also go to extreme lengths in order to resist the angels and demons that arise every now and then to encourage them to move on to whatever afterlife awaits them.
Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t what you might describe as dynamic when it comes to its plot. There’s no great quest or mission to accomplish and most of the narrative explores the past lives of the Bardo’s residents and, perhaps more fittingly, meditates on the fleeting existence of any given life, the nature of sin and virtue, suffering, and how hard it can be for the living, and perhaps even the dead, to let go. I often found the character’s thoughts and laments to be extremely moving and reminded me of the fragility of life and the beauty that, even in our lowest moments, is all around us. There’s something rather Zen about the conclusions that the novel draws and one particular passage towards the end regarding the suffering we must all endure in life felt like something a Buddhist monk might say. This revelation of Lincoln’s includes not just his bereaved family, not just the soldiers fighting and dying in a civil war, but to all humans who ever have and ever will live. It may not be a particularly large book, but it certainly has a great deal worth saying.
Lincoln in the Bardo’s writing style is unlike anything I’ve read before. In some ways, it reads a bit like a play, minus the stage directions, and at other times, usually when concerned with the President himself, Saunders uses citations from a number of sources to convey the man’s state of mind. Some sources swear one thing to be true, and are then followed by another citation which states the complete opposite. It’s plain to see just how difficult it can be to get an accurate picture of history, even history that isn’t especially old in the great scheme of things.
Despite the fact that the book is centred around the devastating loss of Lincoln’s son, I was surprised to find that the book contained a certain dark humour. The three main characters in the Bardo are an unlikely trio, who almost certainly wouldn’t have been companions in life, but are now stuck with one another in purgatory. There’s humour to be found in the way they’ve become like a dysfunctional family, often completing each other’s sentences as they comment on the President and his son. The book certainly has some incredibly heart wrenching moments, moments I imagine are even more heart wrenching should you be a parent, but there’s also a certain levity that makes itself known through the dead onlookers to Lincoln’s grief.
One part of the book in particular struck me deeply, and involves two dammed souls in hell lamenting and questioning how fair their current circumstances are. The two are guilty of very serious crimes, crimes that most would agree warrant damnation, but in their monologue, I found the two souls did poke some serious holes in my thoughts on crimes and punishments and I found myself wondering if there’s really anything one can do that warrants eternal punishment. Surely, after a certain period of time, the dammed soul’s pain will surpass the pain which they caused in life, thus rendering the damnation unjust? It was moments like these, in which the book forced me to reflect on my own beliefs, that had me particularly impressed.
I would highly recommend Lincoln in the Bardo to any readers who find the book’s concept interesting, and to any readers who are looking for something a little different. I can appreciate that the book may not appeal to all, and I don’t think that says anything about either the book or those readers, but I certainly found it to be a refreshing read that made me feel happy, sad, and introspective, sometimes all at once. If you’re looking for a good read this Summer, then I certainly recommend giving this one a try.
Added 13th July 2018