Told through a chorus of over 160 different voices, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders follows the aftermath of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie in 1862 from typhoid fever during the American Civil War. Willie finds himself trapped between death and rebirth with other spirits in the cemetery who believe he should proceed to the next stage of the afterlife. However, Willie is resistant as he wants to spend more time with his distraught father who regularly visits the crypt to mourn his loss.
Saunders is best known for writing short stories and won the Folio Prize in 2014 for his collection ‘Tenth of December’. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is his first novel published earlier this year and the reviews so far have been almost unanimously positive but I have to confess that I struggled with this book. It is undoubtedly ambitious and pushes a lot of boundaries in terms of defining what a novel can be but I also found it difficult to follow and felt more than a bit lost in some parts.
Admittedly, given that the chorus of voices is effectively written as a play script or a long list of annotated quotes rather than conventional prose, it probably didn’t help that I read ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ on a Kindle and all the white space doesn’t make for the best reading experience on a smallish device. On the other hand, reading or listening to ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ in any format is never going to be entirely straightforward. ‘Bardo’ is a Tibetan word for ‘limbo’ or ‘transitional state’ between death and rebirth, and as well as being directly applicable to Willie Lincoln’s purgatorial state, it is also very fitting as a description of the book itself given that the text doesn’t fit neatly into a specific format of prose.
Saunders ambiguously interweaves fictionalised historical narratives with real accounts and one of the aspects of the book I enjoyed the most were the characters’ conflicting and unreliable descriptions of events, particularly for the period leading up to Willie’s death. However, although there are a handful of central characters who appear regularly throughout the book such as the ghosts who reside in the cemetery, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, I think there are simply too many different voices and very few of them are truly distinctive.
‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ ultimately didn’t work for me because of the numerous structural distractions, but it seems to have struck a chord with many others, particularly for the innovative way in which the themes of grief and loss are explored. Many thanks to Random House for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.