Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I heard George Saunders interviewed on the radio, and intrigued by his idea, exploring the in between place of life after death, I bought the book. Hardcover. The Bardo is a Buddhist concept, at a time after death where you either ascend into nirvana, or descend to be born again.

Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t an easy read, particularly the opening chapters. Saunders opening prose is dense, recounting historical extracts, almost like a series of footnotes. These are the observations of the people connected to Lincoln at the time of his son, Willie’s, death. It took some perseverance on my part to wade through this bit to find the craft of Saunders’ book. And there’s another matter. Is it a novel? It is a series of narratives, with the historical context, and then a multi-perspective narrative, rather like a play, as several souls in the bardo relate the occurrences on one night in the graveyard, after Willie is interred.

The crux of the story, and yes there definitely is a story, is that Willie Lincoln dies of typhoid fever whilst his parents, the President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, are hosting a lavish party. Lincoln is bereft, and after the funeral, goes back into the crypt and opens the ‘sick box’, and cradles his son. The other souls witness this, causing some consternation. The main narrators are Bevins, Vollman and Rev Early, who don’t really think that they are dead, and the story is the realisation of this process, of where they are, and what happens to them. It is difficult to relate much more without huge spoilers.

Lincoln in the Bardo is about more than Lincoln’s grief; through the narration of the souls in the bardo, it is much wider, an examination of humankind in itself. Every soul has their story, and they carry around something (a thing or a behaviour) that was fixed in their lifetime, or their death. Saunders explores a kind of morality, not that anyone is a judge except the reader. This is the brilliance of the book, and what lingers when the story has been told. Lincoln in the Bardo is puzzling, weird and bold. Like Ella MeanowPea it is clever, and I rate that in a book. It is also refreshing in that it is nothing like anything else I’ve ever read. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It is not a book of universal appeal, but if you are prepared to work at it, I think the reader will be rewarded.

Book Review: Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrates the fate of three key families within this Mumbai slum, locked together in terrible and tragic circumstances. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Fatima, neighbour, born with one leg and a bitter rival of Abdul’s family. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption, and seeks to intervene (and make) from the tragedies of every day.

I bought this book for my husband, at the time of its release, as he had lived and worked in Mumbai. I visited him there a few times, and had become charmed by India and its people. We took a slum tour, in Deravi, Mumbai’s largest slum, a morning that I will never forget. Reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers some years later adds a layer that is hard to accommodate. What left me, after this ‘responsible’ slum tour, was how much pride, hope and ‘place’ was exhibited in these communities. We saw plastic recyclers, tanneries, schools – and the dreaded public loos. We peered in the slum dwellings, and remarked on the beautifully turned out children. We saw mostly smiles. We saw the computer facility, funded by the tours. To coin a phrase, we left only footprints, as it was forbidden to take photographs. This was an experience, and not a zoo. So why has Boo’s book unsettled me? Boo’s book offers little hope, and little sense of community. Neighbours seek to out do each other, make money off each other, none more so than Asha. There is such little kindness in Boo’s account, and that sits at odds with the people we met in India.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book. It is well-written, almost novel-like, with tension on every page. It is achingly sad, even more so as it is all true. This isn’t the creation of a novelist, making their darlings suffer. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, aided by translators, to report on the lives of the people that feature in her book. It is an impressive project, boiled down to a highly engaging, if disturbing, read. I imagine that I will be thinking about it, haunted by it, long after shutting the book.