‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ in the Bardo

(Note: If you are someone who reads a book without reading the blurb on the back cover or the inside jacket, please skip this post. There are no plot reveals in the book, so I won’t talk of spoilers but I do talk about the book quite a lot. Just saying!)

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ written by American author George Saunders won the Man Booker prize earlier this year. Now to confess, I’m quite skeptical of some of the high ranking awards. The reason is that sometimes the books that are nominated are not always books that speak easily to everyone- think of literary snobs and you get what I’m trying to say. Now I’m not saying that the nominated books are not good but that they are not always books that appeal to everybody.

When George Saunders’ book won what is one of the most high profile literary awards this year, I was quite torn. Especially because all the judges and critics acclaimed the book for its bold and new format. Now, that kind of praise immediately fuelled my skepticism about the book. Was it another one of those snob books? Surprisingly, the theme of the book from the blurbs online didn’t seem very intimidating, quite the opposite in fact. The book was set on a single night in a graveyard in the year 1862 and featured ghosts.

Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo

So in the end, after I had finished my target of books this year and one of my colleagues also decided she was going to read it and the book was also available in my local library, I decided to give it a go. It seemed a low risk venture. After all, if the book turned out to be no good and I had to abandon it, I needn’t tell anyone.

If you’re looking for a short verdict: Must read, fantastic book (that should have been obvious. I don’t write blog posts about books I don’t like. Maybe I should.

Here’s the long version:

The book opens in Feb 1862. President Lincoln has just lost his son Willie Lincoln. The latter, on dying, emerges in Bardo (a Tibetan context- Bardo translating into some kind of limbo land where ghosts tarry before they move on). Willie tarries in Bardo, his deep love for his parents anchoring him to the “previous place” but he must move on.

This is apparently Saunders’ first long format work as he has only written short stories before. I had never before read any work by Saunders but have now added his short story collections to my reading list to get through to eventually. For his first novel, Saunders has chosen an interesting format. The book is not written in the usual style of prose but as a series of quotes- epigraphs and dialogues. So you’ll find one chapter that is essentially just a collection of quotations from a variety of historical sources (some of which are from actual historical works, whereas some are made up). This chapter will then be followed by a chapter like a play where ghosts have dialogues or they describe or quote someone else’s dialogue.

Now I know that sounds complicated, but Saunders has done an amazing job so the book actually flows very easily. In fact a good way to treat the book would be in the style of drama and I think that makes it quite a good choice if you’re someone who likes audio books. The cast of characters is quite large- apparently a total 160+ voices (I didn’t count but this figure has been thrown around). And the ghosts are varied- young, old, rich, poor, white, black – in short, a veritable representation of humanity.

The core theme of the book- the seed at the centre of the fruit is grief. Grief and longing. The narrative revolves around Lincoln’s grief for his lost child. And the longing that the ghosts have (and their loved ones too) to go back to what used to be.

I realise that makes it sound like a sad book and I won’t say that it isn’t but Saunders has done an excellent job of infusing a bit of light heartedness into what could have been a dark and brooding tale. Take for example when ghosts who have heard each other repeating things so many times actually prompt others when they forget their lines.

Saunders’ prose is almost poetry- the rhythm and cadence of his phrases make them more impactful. Consider this many voiced description by the ghosts when Lincoln looks on the body of his young son (each line being uttered by a different ghost)

“A gasp of recognition.
Of recollection.
Of suddenly remembering what had been lost.
A gasp of recognition, as if to say: Here he is again, my child, just as he was. I have found him again, he who was so dear to me.
Who was still so dear.
The loss having been quite recent.”

Surprisingly you never actually hear Lincoln’s voice directly- it is always spoken through his son or one of the ghosts. And that makes it even more poignant. His mental conflict- his grief in losing his son contrasted starkly with that of the families who were losing their sons, brothers, fathers in the American Civil War.

“He is just one.
And the weight of it about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times.”

“Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness. Masks to hide any signs of their happiness, which- which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with their happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them.”

There is also an almost religious exploration of the themes of attachment, the transience of life, and the importance of doing one’s duty no matter how futile it may seem in the long run.

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

“Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. 
Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. 
I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.”

“Strange, isn’t it? To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture in the end, amount to nothing at all”

I could keep quoting but I think you get the point.

So coming to the end, why the repetition in the title of my blog post? Well, I have already finished my target of books this year. But I couldn’t just waste over 10 days not reading any books until 2018. And so I read this book but I do not know if I should include it in the tally for this year or the next one. I’m afraid George Saunders’ work is now stuck in the limbo land of my reading worlds 🙂

Have you read ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’? What did you think?

Note: Interestingly the photograph/ illustration of the young child used in the covers of the book do not seem to be that of William Wallace Lincoln but that of his brother Tad Lincoln.

Great books are ones that inspire you to read further. This book now wants me to read more about Abraham Lincoln and also other works by Saunders.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Nirmala says:

    Interesting. Must read

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      You should!

  2. Lav says:

    I heard a lot about the book and also listened to author speak about it on radio…this review definitely makes me want to read it…

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Yes, it’s definitely worth a read.

  3. I just read this book and loved it! It was a selection for my book club, and I could not put it down. Now I can’t stop thinking about it. My husband asked if I thought he’d like it. I told him he’d either love it or hate it. It seems to me to be that kind of book. Cannot wait to hear what my fellow book club members thought when we get together in a few weeks.
    Miss Harper Lee’s Mommy (Miss Harper Lee has not yet read this one 😉 )

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      I’m glad you loved it as well. You’re right people either get hooked in right at the start or will put it down after a few pages. I hope your book club also thinks the book was great!

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