Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders


Over the years, I have tried (and failed) at reading Booker Prize winners – I’ve found them too big, too boring or just beyond me. I never give up on the activity though (about once a year I try to pick up one such book), but it is with much trepidation I approach the act. So I was pleasantly surprised when I not only managed to finish this book, but also wasn’t drained at the end of it.

George Saunders’ experimental novel follows the night of burial of Willie Lincoln, the youngest son of US President Abraham Lincoln, who died at the age of twelve of typhoid. It takes place in the Oak Hill Cemetery where the boy was buried, in the bardo, a limbo state between life and death in which Willie, and most of the characters of the novel, exist. The story weaves two aspects together – dialogue of the ghosts living in limbo in the cemetery (written in a play format), and excerpts from different real and made-up books about Lincoln, written by people ranging from real historical researchers to Lincoln’s housekeeping staff (apparently).

His eyes dark grey, clear, very expressive, and varying with every mood.

In “The Life of Abraham Lincoln,” by Isaac N. Arnold.

Gray-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, and as though encircled by deep and dark wrinkles.

In “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,” by the Marquis de Chambrun.

His eyes were a bluish-brown.

In “Herndon’s Informants,” edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, account of Robert Wilson.

Kind blue eyes, over which the lids half dropped.

In “With Lincoln from Washington to Richmond in 1865,” by John S. Barnes.

It’s an audacious novel, for sure, and one which can go wrong on so many fronts. The style of writing took some time to get used to, but once I did, it engaged me to a reasonable level. The context and Lincoln’s character didn’t resonate as much to me as it would to an American, but I enjoyed the ghosts, especially the three core narrators. Their narrative about the ghosts in the cemetery, and the way they clung to a lie about it (that their tombs were ‘sick-boxes’, that they would soon be revived), is poignant. Clever and creative is also the way Saunders merges real and fictional excerpts, sometimes to provide perspective on the times, sometimes as a trick, like in the above (all are real books), where he shows how the same person can be remembered in different ways by different folks. There are many layers to the story – about letting go, about memories, about living and dying and what defines us in our lives.

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