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.