I finally read Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize winner for 2017, and it was quite an experience. The book made a splash for its unusual theme and innovative style – it is written in a quasi-dramatic form and composed in part of quotes from history books and primary sources, including diaries of White House servants and Washington elite.
The novel revolves around the death of Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s 10-year-old son, of typhoid fever in February 1862. According to some reports, after the boy had been buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, his father would visit his tomb at night. Saunders takes that and weaves a story around it in which the ghosts of others buried at Oak Hill – ghosts that have not yet arrived at their final destination, and are stuck as it were in a limbo – congregate around young Willie and battle over his soul.
Some scenes have a maddened, feverish quality of a danse macabre, while in others the ghosts enact Dantesque punishments for their sins. Those punishments are magnified versions of their infractions from when they were alive. For example, a former hunter sits in front of a heap of animals he had dispatched, hugging each one for months on end, slowly making the pile smaller.
Interspersed with those are Lincoln’s visits to what to him is a quiet nighttime cemetery in an attempt to connect with the spirit of his son. Those pilgrimages lead to profound meditations on the nature of love, duty, and loss, not just on a personal level but also on a national one because the United States is being torn apart by a civil war. That war, in less than a year, has resulted in the deaths of thousands of boys and men, leaving a legion of loved ones similarly bereaved.
Lincoln in the Bardo is not for the faint of heart. And because I can sometimes be faint of heart there were parts with which I struggled, and parts that made me emotional. But that is perhaps the goal of great literature – not just to entertain and educate, but push us to reach deep inside ourselves and face our own fears.
Poignant, bizarre, deeply human, and at times disorienting, Sounders’ novel will not appeal to everyone’s tastes, but those who find it to their liking will be in for a treat.
If you like historical fiction, check out my new novel The Greenest Branch, based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces. It is also FREE on Kindle Unlimited.