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.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors: Nayomi Munaweera

Island of Thousand Mirrors

One of my resolutions this year, is to read a book related to every new country that I visit. It could be fiction or non-fiction, but the idea is to understand the country and its culture a little better, beyond the regular sightseeing I did during my visit, and also carry a little bit of the country with me.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the story of two girls growing up in the shadow of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Yashodhara is part of a large well-to-do Sinhala family living an idyllic life in Colombo. Saraswathi, introduced halfway down the novel, is a Tamil girl trying to fulfill her dream of being a teacher amidst a harsh existence in an active war zone.

“Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him.”

The book is lyrical and evocative, with Yashodhara’s story bringing the island nation’s many charms to life. Until the war hits, her life is simple, and reminded me of  my childhood summer vacations, amidst my extended family. War changes the course of life for her and her family. Saraswathi, on the other hand, has always had it tough, but it only gets tougher for her. Munaweera has the characters go through harshness and do some unforgiveable things, but she retains a tenderness and care for her characters. Her prose is simple yet descriptive, and was the highlight of the book for me. We Indians are so near, yet so far, from what Sri Lanka is and was, and this book helped bring it a bit closer to me.