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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

    Poet Hollie McNish, judge for the 2018 fiftieth anniversary Golden Man Booker prize, said ‘I have never read a book like Lincoln in the  Bardo … it was so imaginative and tragic, but also a piece of genius in its originality of form and structure.  

    Lincoln in the Bardo written by George Saunders, won the Man Booker prize in 2017 and was shortlisted for this year’s Golden Booker. It focuses on Willie Lincoln, the eleven year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, who dies of typhoid. As the American Civil War rages on the president mourns his son’s death. 

    On the winter’s day in February 1862 the boy’s remains are transported to a white marble crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown Washington DC. The distraught Abraham Lincoln visits his son’s tomb several times during that day and night.  

    Saunders uses these real events as the starting point for creating an imagined community amongst the cemetery’s spirit inhabitants. Hans Volmann, Richard Bevins and the Reverend Everly Thomas are the main characters and chiefs in a chorus of 160 narrators, all of whom are waiting in the bardo state, which according to Tibetan Buddhism is in the afterlife, an intermediary stage between being reborn and leaving the earthly sphere. Saunder’s version resembles a Dantesque purgatory. Some of them wait there to avoid facing judgement.

    The Bardo scenes read like a play script, in era appropriate language. We get the various stories of the Bardo inhabitants interweaved with the Lincoln family’s tale of woe, adding context, scope and sometimes lightness even to the plot. All of them, apart from Reverend Everly Thomas, refuse to acknowledge that they’re dead. They refer to their coffins as ‘sick boxes’. 

    ‘Unlike these (Bevins, Vollman, the dozen of other naifs I reside here among), I know very well what I am. Am not ‘sick’, not ‘lying on a kitchen floor', not ‘being healed via sick box', not ‘waiting to be revived.’ 

    Their stories are often equally woeful. Jane Ellis tells how she is surrounded by orbs containing likenesses of her 3 surviving children, who continue to demand her attention. Ellis Traynor had dreams of having a family before her life was cut short. African American Elson Farwell, a slave, recalls his mistreatment at the hands of his owners.

    This device of using several narrators or polyphonic voices might have appealed to the Man Booker judges (including Hollie McNish), who seem to favour books that are inventive and avant garde in style. It can be confusing for the reader though. Keeping up with all the different characters is a challenge. And Mr Vollman and Mr Bevins often have tangential conversations and finish off each other’s sentences which is tiresome. 

    It’s the Lincoln Family tragedy, based on personal testimonies and actual quotes from the president’s employees, colleagues and enemies which is most compelling. Saunder’s choice of subject matter, is again likely to have helped win over the judges in terms of its gravitas.   

    Abraham Lincoln was stricken with grief at his son’s loss but he and his wife Mary reportedly hosted a lavish party at the White House while their son was sick in bed and faced huge criticism for this, but it’s a scene shown with compassion.  

    ‘The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and with suprising grace for one so ill made, sat at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap.’  

    The president is at his most vulnerable when he's also criticised for the mounting death toll from the Civil war. But the situation strengthens his resolve to abolish slavery despite significant public opposition. Saunders points to Abraham Lincoln as a visionary and charismatic leader. 

    ‘Our Willie would not wish us hobbled by that attempt by a vain grief. In our mind the lad stood atop a hill, merrily waving to us, urging us to be brave and resolve the thing’ 

    What’s surprising is that although there is an emphasis on grief and loss, the book doesn’t seem overly morbid or heavy. Saunder’s writing is marked by its brevity and preciseness. There’s reference to idle gossip about Abraham Lincoln’s appearance (the colour of his eyes, his stature and his character). All this seems trivial given the novel’s serious context.  

    The Bardo inhabitants are ostensibly in state of inertia but they’re surrounded by distractions, including the President’s visit to the cemetery. They band together to persuade Willie Lincoln to leave the Bardo since small children aren’t supposed to wait there. Here, the story alludes to Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play ‘Exit the King'. 

    Saunders even creates an exit mechanism from the Bardo when the soul is extinguished: the matterlightblooming phenomenon' accompanied by ‘a bone-chilling firesound’. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ gives us an insight into a critical period in President Lincoln’s life and an all encompassing view of humankind. But readers who prefer books with a more traditional structure might struggle with it.

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