I confess–I thought this books was going to be about Lincoln in France or in a French hotel or neighborhood, maybe in New Orleans.
So I wasn’t all that anxious to read it. Plus, it’s historical fiction which I’m frankly a bit biased against.
But it looked like a quick read and since I needed something I could finish before Monday when I planned on starting Pride and Prejudice I decided to give it a go. Man Booker prize long list after all,
I loved it. I had a tough time putting it down; stayed up late into the night. I’m still thinking about it two days after finishing.
It’s best described as a historical ghost story. Think Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and insert Abraham Lincoln and young son Willie who died of typhoid during the first year of the American Civil War. Lincoln is inconsolable. Willie was his favorite child, clearly and this loss, coupled with a country that blamed him for a war that was not going well, puts him in a very dark place. The graveyard, in fact, where his son is interred.
The Bardo, it turns out, is the place souls reside after they have left this life until the are at peace enough to be reincarnated into the next. The graveyard is populated largely with the souls of people who have unresolved business they cannot move past. Children, do not stay there long. Typically just a few minutes, maybe an hour; some are just quick blips, barely noticeable at all as they enter and leave so quickly.
Willie remains for days, unable to leave his grieving father behind. That his father continues to visit the graveyard day after day only encourages Willie to stay in the Bardo. Soon he has stayed so long that he is in danger of becoming trapped there, forever.
Enter a group of three ghosts, men who have spent a long time together waiting to be summoned back to life, unable to move on to the next. Most of the ghosts are convinced they are still alive, just sick or injured, waiting for someone to rescue them or cure them and bring them back from what they call their sick box. Once our three narrators realize the Willie does not belong there with them, they determine to manipulate Lincoln’s behavior in order to convince Willie to move on to whatever comes next.
What helps make Lincoln in the Bardo such a wonderful book is the hundreds of narrators it has, sometime as many as eight or ten on a page.
Let me explain….
The book is narrated in snippets. At first, focused on Lincoln and his sick child, the book presents a series of selections from history texts, personal letter, journals, newspaper articles, each no longer than a paragraph. This way the book presents itself as history told through a series of eyewitnesses. It works remarkably well. If you didn’t read the citations for each you’d have a straightforward narration. I recognized only Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals among the many citations so I don’t know how many of these Mr. Saunders is actually quoting nor how many he is making up.
Once the scene moves to the graveyard, the ghosts take over the narration, in turns telling the reader what happens to Willie and what has happened to each of them, how they have come to end up in the Bardo along with how and why they struggle to remain there.
This makes it possible for Mr. Saunders to present a very wide range of experiences in Lincoln in the Bardo. Men and women from a wide range of time periods and social strata. Sometimes souls from the nearby slave burial site next door sometimes roam over into the graveyard there are conflicts between them and one time slave-owning souls.
But at the book’s core there is the bond between Lincoln and his son which is what makes Lincoln in the Bardo such a moving story. The bond is so profound that while it endangers Willie’s soul, causing him to remain as close to his father as possible, it begins to bring the other souls to a place where they can consider moving on from the Bardo.
I think this is what made the book work so well for me. This idea regarding how what keeps us in this life can also be what helps us move on. I think Mr. Saunders is on to something powerful about the nature of grief here.
And that, along with how well the story is told, make Lincoln in the Bardo my new favorite book.