Booker Book Review : Lincoln In The Bardo

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Intro: This is the second in the Booker Review series that me and Writenlive are collaborating on. You can read our reviews of Elmet here and here.

Read her terrific review of this book here.

Synopsis (From Goodreads):

The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

Review:

Bardo, when I read the word, felt odd. I had heard Bard, as is applied to men like Shakespeare, but whatever was Bardo? Google told me that it is the state between death and rebirth, from Bardo Thodol, popular in the West as the Tibetan book Of The Dead. The Sanskrit word for it, per Hinduism, is “antarbhava.”

Okay, that explained matters. And this being a Booker nominee, I was excited (naturally, if I may add). Imagine my surprise then when I started the book. It was the one of the most disorienting mess I have come across, ever, or so I thought. It also had excerpts from historical works, most of them nonfiction I presume, dealing with the Lincolns and the death of their kid, as also the state of the Civil War.

From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.

One of the aforementioned excerpts.

And there were monologues from people whom I had no idea about, people whose names only were provided there, without any sort of introduction –

The Reverend Everly Thomas;
Roger Bevins III;
Hans Vollman, etc etc.

Who are these people, I thought?Plus, if you have to use passages from other books as whole chapters in your own book, what’s the meaning of writing fiction? Why even bother? This is how my mind was going. Every time I would pick up the book after a break, I’d struggle with the structure and the tone of the book. And yet, having read what I’d call a decent number of quality books, I knew that patience has its own sweet fruit, especially when it comes to works of fiction. So I persisted.

Around the 35% mark, I was fed up with the book. Also, I had a hunch that the book might only be these ramblings and not much more. I thought it wouldn’t have a central conflict-and-resolution at heart, as works of fiction generally have. But this was George Saunders, the master of the American short story, a format that naturally demands a conflict and its resolution as the centrepiece of the work. So I persisted some more.

And voila!

Lincoln In The Bardo uses an old trick in the game – creation of a fictional narrative around actual events of historical importance. President Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s death and the raging, unending Civil War are the real events here. And Mr. Saunders (whose name brought to my mind the British officer gunned down by the revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and co. in colonised India) has done a marvellous job, a book that is as unconventional in its narrative as it is deft in bending the real and the imaginary.

Friend: We are here. Already here. Within. A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured. It costs you nothing. Why not try?

A striking thing about the excerpts used is the way they show the difference that POVs can create. A chapter has excerpts discussing president Lincoln’s appearance and the colour of his eyes. They go from dark to grey to bluish-grey, as the chroniclers change. When something as fundamentally true as the colour of one’s eye can change with the person recounting it, what chance do other, more subjective things, stand? This narrative paradox is used to great effect throughout the book, and is also central to the core conflict-and-resolution in the book. How and why, I wouldn’t spoil, but when you come across it, the joy would be quite something.

Strange, isn’t it? To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors utterly forgotten?

Another excellent thing is the multitude of voices that the book uses. Sure, they are chaotic and unruly at the beginning (a mess, frankly). But as you get to know them, as you understand their nuances, you come to enjoy their monologues. I don’t remember a single paragraph that was told by an omniscient narrator. Either it is the excerpts or the voices. And Mr. Saunders has made sure, with his skills, that each character has their unique voice. The major characters – ghosts – talk in what you can say standard English. At the other end of the spectrum are people, both living and dead, whose monologues are devoid of any punctuation mark, pronunciation, or grammatical sense. And as crazy as it may sound, you’d enjoy them, and might even look forward to their arrival.

By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do.

The opening passage of the book doesn’t show the time or the date, not even the speaker. Then there are some lines in the book that are spoken twice or thrice over. The beauty is, when you come across the repeated usage of a line or paragraph, instead of frowning, as one normally would, you’d have a eureka moment of sorts.

A superlative passage of edits around 2/3rd of the way into the book delves into how hard it must have been for Lincoln to make judgements and decisions, not just for the country but also for his own family. His pain, his sense of loss at Willie’s death, is brought out in heartfelt manner, conveying the stark pain. Coupled with the Civil War that has led to 3,000 soldiers dead around the time of the book’s opening, Lincoln is facing pain and failure across personal and professional fronts. The book addresses this too, entwining it with the ghosts’ stories. The result? A novel of daring and breathtaking beauty, a work of fiction unlike any I have ever read.

Verdict: Despite being a difficult book to start, Lincoln In The Bardo is a terrific read that gallops to the finish, run-skimming. It is every bit deserving of all the acclaims and plaudits it is receiving.

Image Credit.

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction.

Booker Prediction: Unlikely but, dark horse, maybe?

Trivia: Mr. Saunders got the idea for this book on a visit to Washington many years ago. And he took 4 years to write it, as he explains in this simple, stirring post.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Have you read Lincoln In The Bardo? What is your take on the book? Which of the other nominees have you read? Drop your views in the comments section.

“Because great books deserve great discussions.”

Book cover image courtesy : http://www.georgesaundersbooks.com

Thanks for reading.

8 Comments

  1. I admire your courage in going through the book inspite of a perceived poor beginning and a mess of voices.

    Your review brings forth your own changing viewpoint of the book and I agree that the book is an excellent and compelling read.

    I was drawn in by those diverse voices from the very beginning and throughly enjoyed the drama and the pathos.

    Using excerpts from historical accounts is curious and yes, the inconsistency regarding the facts even, like Lincoln’s hair colour or the moon on the night of the state reception, is fascinating and underlines a much serious theme.

    I only wish that the spirit-voices are at peace and in a happy place 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, now that it has won the Booker Prize too, I think I did well to keep the patience and finish it. I’d have been confused otherwise. 😂

      And yes, I also hope that the spirits are in a better place.😁😁

      Thank you for the kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review!! I haven’t read this book yet, I wasn’t sure it was one that I’d enjoy, but after reading your review you have convinced me to give this book a chance 🙂 It sounds quite interesting, and I’ll be interested to see if I find it too literary & pretentious for me, or if I enjoy it. Sounds like it could go either way! Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely, I also began with certain disorientation…as I wasn’t prepared for this experimental narrative. I finished the book and felt, I may never say it is a great book…there is research, a good intent but there are way too many voices, in so many different directions.
    I will recommend Pastoralia by Saunders anyday, it’s really good.

    Liked by 1 person

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