Lincoln in the Bardo reviewed

LincolnintheBardoWith a short story writer of George Saunders’ outstanding calibre, it was a given that his novel debut would be stylistically impeccable. But there is so much more to Lincoln in the Bardo than literary showy offness. It packs an emotional punch that makes it one of the most moving books I have ever read.

Telling the true story of the death of US President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie from typhoid in 1862, it is set against the backdrop of a raging American Civil War, which robbed many other parents of their sons and in which Lincoln had a direct hand. Saunders says he was first hooked when he learned that Lincoln repeatedly visited his son’s body as it lay temporarily in a crypt in Oak Hill cemetery, Washington.

The story is told via three strands: a multitude of narrators among the graveyard residents who are caught in limbo (including young Willie), factual accounts of the events (some real, some written by Saunders) and – occasionally – Lincoln himself. Despite the melancholy and sometimes dark subject matter, there is much humour throughout and a light touch that is very much Saunders’ trademark.

Willie Lincoln photographed at the Chicago History Museum in 1859, aged eight or nine

The facts are cleverly conveyed through excerpts from biographies, letters and diary entries of the time. These also demonstrate how coloured and unreliable history can be – quotes are often juxtaposed, in particular when describing the kind of man Lincoln was depending on the political leanings of the teller. This feels especially timely in a world of so-called ‘fake news’, the accounts of Willie’s illness, death and mourning contradictory about everything from the reactions of Lincoln and his wife Mary (both pictured below) to whether there was a full moon on the night of the child’s passing.

The chief part of the story – and its heart and soul – is set in the graveyard and comprises many points of view. This can seem daunting to follow, but actually there are four main voices driving the plot – young Willie, utterly disoriented in this strange place, and three long-term inmates who don’t quite comprehend their own predicament – Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas. They watch in fascination as the boy’s father tries to communicate with his son who cannot in turn be heard, and feel compelled to help. Incidentally, ‘bardo’ is apparently a Tibetan term for a transitional realm, equally relevant to Lincoln, Willie and the spirits drawn to the situation.

It is a beautiful, profound study of grief. Here is President Lincoln attempting to come to grips with the loss of his beloved boy:

‘I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant. 

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

Only I did not think it would be so soon.

Or that he would precede us.

Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond.

I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.’

So is it actually a novel? For me, it read more like a play or radio play. You have to let many of the voices wash over you, picking out the ‘main cast’ of five from the cacophony, living and dead. The premise reminded me of an article I read last year about a classic but obscure experimental Irish-language novel that was recently translated into English. Graveyard Clay (Cré na Cille), written by Máirtín Ó Cadhain in 1949, sees the locals of a Connemara village carry on the same petty bickering and rivalries even after they become unwilling neighbours in the afterlife, ie. the local graveyard.

At the end of the day, Lincoln in the Bardo defies categorisation and it really doesn’t matter. This powerful book is a satisfying read, with a huge heart. Saunders never sacrifices warmth for cleverness, and the poignant results stay in the mind long after reading. A most worthy winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

For the writers among you, Saunders wrote a fascinating article for the Guardian some time ago about his writing process and why it took him 20 years to feel courageous enough to tackle his ambitious novel idea.


2 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo reviewed

  1. Great review, Anne.

    I agree completely with the difficulty of its classification as a ‘novel’. But I’ve had a problem with that word for a while and with The Spinning Heart, All that Man Is, Anything is Possible, Solar Bones and now LATB, my difficulty has intensified. Maybe we need to move away from categorisation altogether, I don’t know, but it was such a reading experience that I’m glad I went to the effort. As you say, a great heart at its core, and, of course, it’s George Saunders…


    1. I’ve read so many novels lately that have been style over substance (one of them happens to be on your list there!) that I’m weary of showy novels. But this is beautifully balanced, in my humble opinion. Thanks for reading, Tadhg

      Liked by 1 person

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