About 50 pages into Lincoln in the Bardo something clicked, all the different voices came together along with the historical snippets and suddenly I couldn’t put this book down. I was waking up first thing to read it, seeking out seats on the train for extra reading time and trying to eat dinner one handed so I could continue.
To describe this book as a historical novel would be disingenuous, even though it takes a moment of historical truth: that Abraham Lincoln’s son William Wallace Lincoln died aged 12 years of a fever and Lincoln was devastated by his death. Lincoln was reported in the newspapers of the time to have visited his son’s tomb, several times, during his internment to hold his body and grieve. From this kernel of truth, George Saunders spins an astonishing, amusing and heart-wrenching tale told over the course of one single night, set within the ‘Bardo’ — the limbo world between life and death.
The majority of the narrative is told from the perspective of various ghosts who manifest at night in the graveyard where Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest. And they are numerous, Wikipedia has their total at 166. These voices are bawdy, sensitive, distinct, gentile and together to build a cacophony of personalities to populate the ‘Bardo’. This can be jarring to the eye at first with the quick back and forth between multiple characters looking more like a play than prose, but the strength of the voices and the narrative intrigue (the locale, the unusualness of Willie’s ghost remaining, the tenderness with which Mr Lincoln returns to his son’s body) draws the reader in until it seems only natural and right that this story should be told this way.
Take for example this passage:
At which point, he sobbed
He had been sobbing all along.
ROGER BEVINS III
He emitted, a single, heartrending sob.
Or gasp. I heard it as more of a gasp. A gasp of recognition.
ROGER BEVINS III
Even in this small snippet, you can see Saunder’s ear for rhythm and language and the uncertainty that runs throughout the book of the authenticity of historical record and personal recollection. Even with the events unfolding before them Vollman and Bevins have differing accounts.
Around this ghostly narration, Saunders intersperses ‘historical accounts’ (some are real others fictional) which recount the days preceding and after Willie Lincoln’s death. In a similar way to the ghost’s voices add to the picture of events and personalities surrounding the Lincolns. But crucially as with the ghosts, the ‘histories’ that are recounted of often contradictory and inconsistent, a subtle reminder that ‘historical fact’ should always be interrogated, that there is always an amount perspective to take into account and that one person can never truly know what another is feeling or experiencing.
Unless, of course, they happen to be a ghost and inhabit the body of a living person so that they can in fact hear what someone is thinking, something which Saunders uses to great effect in some of the book’s most moving passages when we hear directly from Lincoln in the mire of his grief:
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.
I mistook him for solidarity, and now must pay.
And of course this is a book about grief, and mortality, it could never not be given its subject matter. It explores the profound grief (and disbelief) of a father experiencing the loss his favourite child, and the uncertainty and a multitude of emotions: one moment stricken at the loss, the next hopeful he is in a better place, the next determined to do right by him. It is heartbreaking at times to read, but never over-sentimental.
Saunders never allows the reader to wallow too long in one place, one location, one brain even. A whole chorus of ghosts come and go, each giving their star turn on the stage: the bawdy funny Barons who died in poverty and whose endless swearing is ‘beeped’ out on the page, the old leuntenient, racist and full of blather, the pious reverend who knows more than he lets on, Litzie, who is rendered mute from the horrors she experienced while alive and Elson Farwell, both slaves, who express anger at those who oppressed them in life and in Elson Farwell a lust for (justified) revenge, and on and on the cast of characters grows. Each leap off the page and are given a distinct voice and presentation, helping the reader to distinguish them from one another. In another clever invention of Saunders, the ghost bear the weight of their deeds while on earth over into their limbo-state, so that a huntsmen must spend his time cradling all the animals he killed or Mrs. Francis Hodge, another slaves who hands and feet are now ‘worn to nubs’ from the hard labour she was forced to do, or the trio of bachelors who fly over-head and throw down various hats over the rest (for seemingly no reason other than their own amusement) This inventiveness never stalls and propels the reader from one section to the next, endlessly curious for what Saunders will concoct next to proliferate his limbo-world. What stories will be shared, what histories, funny or tragic, the reader will unearth.
Once the reader attunes their ear to the rhythm of the dialogue and descriptions there is much to revel in here: the world-building of the novel, the logic of the ‘Bardo’ — the matterlightblooming phenomenon, the ‘sick-boxes’ — the rotating cast of characters, all create a rich a believe limbo-landscape. There is much to ruminate on also: the nature of grief and its affect, the question of morality and mortality, of regrets and hopes of a life well lived (or not lived), what it means to truly forgive and move towards redemption and the nature of ‘history’ and what narratives we chose to believe and what narratives we chose to write for ourselves. Exquisite stuff.