Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

When I started reading Lincoln in the Bardo I was told by someone on Instagram that ‘there’s nothing like it,’ and they were completely right. I haven’t ever read a book which has been structured or presented in a similar way to it before. It’s based around the heart-breaking anecdote of Abraham Lincoln visiting the temporary crypt of his son, Willie, the night after he died, so that he could hold his boy’s body. The narration style is a mix of excerpts from real and fictional historical sources relating to that night, and the voices of the hundreds of ghosts or souls sharing Willie’s cemetery, all narrating their life stories and the events of that particular night. There are 166 narrators (according to Wikipedia), some who feature prominently (Hans Vollerman and Roger Bevins III are the most frequent), and others who just have one or two lines of narration. Lincoln himself is never a narrator, although we do get glimpses into his thoughts via the ghosts who manage to share his body and hence his thoughts for a short while.

At times I did find it hard to keep track of who was narrating. The character’s name was always attributed at the end of their narration, which meant they could have been talking for a whole page before it was revealed who was talking. There’s such a vast number of voices that they all began to merge into one another in my head, and I found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between any who weren’t Hans Vollerman and Roger Bevins III (although those two also became a single amalgamation to me). Because the narration was broken down into so many short sections in this way, it did mean that the book was very quick to get through, and it felt like I was flying from one narrator to another.

Being a novel largely focused with death, at times it was of course very moving. The image of Lincoln visiting a crypt to cradle his dead child is so heart-breaking (although admittedly I did also find it a bit creepy). The stories of how the various residents found their way to their ‘sickboxes’ was also emotive, especially poor Roger Bevins III who cut his wrists after being dumped by his boyfriend but changed his mind at the last moment, and was waiting for someone to find him on the kitchen floor, staring at a piece of orange peel between the floorboards. It was the orange peel which really got to me, it’s such a simple thing to notice and hang on to. It was the beauty of life which changed his mind, and so while ‘in the bardo’ he was obsessed with the beauty of nature and would get himself worked up into such a state that he appeared as many moving heads and hands. Another resident was tormented with worry about whether her three girls were coping without her, and was followed around the cemetery by visions of them in three orbs. A mulatto girl who had been the victim of numerous horrific ordeals, including multiple rapes (and possible murder?) was unable to talk, her dress marked with bloody handprints on her hips.

I don’t want to paint this book as all doom and gloom though, because that is so far from the truth. There were moving, emotional moments, but there were also some extremely comic moments (most notably featuring Hans Vollerman, who died while looking forward to having sex with his young wife for the first time, and so spent his time in the cemetery wandering around with an enormous, wobbling erection). There’s a lot of sweet moments, especially in regards to the snippets and trivialities of life which each of them remembers. There’s also tension regarding Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and the way the ghosts of the black community are treated by the white. Black people were buried in a communal grave which was separated from the rest of the cemetery, and a particularly unpleasant Colonel is determined to make sure they stay separate.

For such a short book, there’s quite a lot going on, and so many different stories to tell. It’s about Lincoln, but it’s not about Lincoln. It’s about grief and race and class and people not wanting to let go of the past. A lot of the ghosts couldn’t accept that they’d died without Willie’s help, and were trying to cling on to what they remembered of their previous lives, believing themselves to be sick and, once recovered, able to return to their lives and their families. Some were obsessed with thoughts of their loved ones, others with thoughts of their businesses or the money they’d lost. Above all, it really seemed to me to be a book about what it is to be human, and what we find important in life, and how even the smallest of things (such as a piece of orange peel) can be so hard to let go of when it’s all that we have left to cling to.

Read previous Book Review featuring Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne.