If you pay attention to the title of this review, you will see that there’s no Book Review written in the heading of this post. The reason behind it is because Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is one the most brilliant fiction ever written. I am an ardent fiction fan and I am not sure about others, but for me, in my entire collection of 347 fiction books, Lincoln in the Bardo is simply the best.
At which point, he sobbed.
He had been sobbing all along.
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He emitted a single, heartrending sob.
Or gasp. I heard it as more of a gasp. A gasp of recognition.
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Of suddenly remembering what had been lost.
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The story of Lincoln in the Bardo takes us back to the time when Abraham Lincoln was dealing with Civil War at one hand and on the other hand, his family life was slowly turning upside down with his 11-year-old son, Willie lying sick in bed with a very bleak chance of survival. As Lincoln’s host a lavish state reception, Willie is upstairs in the anguish of typhoid fever. Saunders has quoted famous observers on the details of the feast, how magnificent it was, and mentioning the tragedy that was unfolding slowly upstairs.
Willie dies and he is taken to the Oak Hill Cemetery where he is kept in a marble crypt. On two occasions. and these are the occasions on which this brilliant book is based, Abraham Lincoln enters the crypt to mourn his son’s early demise.
The cemetery is the hub of spirits, dead people who for reasons that are an important part of the narrative, are not willing to complete their journey of the afterlife. The complete novel is based on the speeches of these ghosts, mainly the three ghosts- Bevins, Vollman and the Reverend Early. Willie like other children is expected to pass on quickly to the afterlife, but because of his father’s grief, he is tempted to stay back. Determined to help Willie see reason and let him pass on to the afterlife, the trio of ghosts decide to center their actions on attempts to influence Lincoln to let his son go. And that’s how the magic of Lincoln in the Bardo begins.
So let’s talk about why Lincoln in the Bardo turned out to be the best fiction for me. First, the word Bardo. If you google the word, you will get the meaning as “Limbo between the birth and rebirth of someone”. When Willie dies, he is in a state of limbo, where he is not able to make himself submit to the afterlife. His father’s mourning makes him stop, and the way the trio of ghosts try and make Lincoln budge was magical to read.
Second, the way Lincoln in the Bardo was written. It was the first time I was reading a third party narration, wherein the protagonist doesn’t have much to say, but the other characters define his predicament very beautifully! The entire storyline is based on the excerpts from Lincoln’s life recorded by other people, and this was the thing that blew my mind completely!
Third, the emotion from which this book was born. From a single seed of thought on how Lincoln entered his son’s crypt twice that night to mourn, an entire brilliant text was born. A book so magnificent and beautiful in its own way, that I almost shed a tear when I was reading how media wrote about Lincoln.
” A cartoon appeared in a Washington rag called the “Gab & Joust” showing Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln throwing back glasses of champagne as the boy ( with tiny Xs for his eyes) climbed into an open grave, inquiring, “Father, a glass before I Go? ”
Though Lincoln in the Bardo is not everybody’s cup of tea, yes, it is a book that is a must read and needs to be celebrated because of the magic that Saunders has spread through his words.
I for one highly recommend this beauty. In case you are reading it, share your thoughts with me in the comments section.