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Lincoln in the Bardo

Party down at the cemetery

Well, here’s something utterly different. A book with a cacophony of 166 different voices portraying the Bardo (a temporary state in between death and re-birth in the Buddhist faith) of President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie. It’s an unusually structured and challenging book, and a moving portrayal of death and grief (and you’ll never walk through a cemetery at night in quite the same way).

In the midst of the American Civil War, President Lincoln loses his favourite son Willie to typhoid fever. On the night of the funeral, Lincoln goes back to the cemetery to be with his son. This much is fact and the starting point for Saunders’ (up until now a short-story writer) first novel.

The cemetery is inhabited by the spirits, invisible to the human eye, of people unable to accept they’re dead. Rather, they consider themselves ‘sick’ and, until they acknowledge they’re wrong, they will ‘tarry’ in this in-between state. Sounds weird? You bet!

Willie is held back by a sense of obligation to his devastated father. Our two main ‘narrators’, Mr Bevins and Mr Vollman, have hung around for a while. Mr Bevins hoping someone will save him from bleeding to death after a suicide attempt. Mr Vollman hoping to go back after being robbed (by a beam falling from the ceiling) of the moment he was going to consummate his marriage.

There are many more characters – a reverend, black slaves, a woman having left behind three daughters, three flying bachelors – who move about the cemetery in their ghoulish forms. You cannot help but feel desperately sorry for these spirits and they themselves are painfully aware of their own grotesqueness.

…we had been considerable. We had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain.

Tales from the supernatural Bardo contrast with quotes from historical documents or books (some real, some made up by Saunders) recounting what happened ‘on the ground’, so to speak. It’s a bewildering structure that makes for confusing reading, particularly in the first few chapters. But once you get into the rhythm of this book it is a beautiful read.

Astonishingly, Saunders somehow succeeds in making the world of the Bardo believable. The spirits represents humanity, the good and the bad, and his portrayal of grief will leave a lump in your throat. In all of this, Lincoln finds guidance in how to get through the monumental task ahead of him: winning the war.

Make no mistake, this is not an easy read (I had to read passages over to make sure I understood what was going on), but as with most things hard, it’s all the more satisfying when you crack it.

The audio book version is magnificent with actors including Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, the author himself, his friends and family reading the 166 different voices. It’s easy to get lost, though, so I ended up buying both.

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