Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
on 24 June 2018
I often wish that books classified as literary fiction (whatever that is) would find something new to say, rather than just peddling another version of middle class miserablism. Well, Lincoln in the Bardo must be literary fiction, mustn't it? It did win the Booker after all. It certainly delivers something new and original. It's also a piece of genre fiction, I'm just not sure which genre. Horror? Ghost story? Zombie book? Historical? Fantasy? Magical Realism?
To address one other point made about this book in reviews, it is not a difficult or challenging read. It takes a little bit of time at the start to tune in to it, but once you understand how the author is telling his tale, it is a very easy and enjoyable read.
This is the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son Willie. It is told by two different sets of voices. Firstly, the actually events around Willie's death are told in a series of snippets from contemporary observers. In telling his story in this way, author George Saunders comments on the unreliability of history, and on the changing perceptions of great historical figures. The Lincoln of this book is at the start if the Civil War and deeply unpopular in some quarters. To some observers his relationship with his son is deeply moving, to others he is a cold and callous father.
The second set of voices is what sets this book apart. They are spirits, ghosts, the undead, remaining on earth in some form of limbo (in some schools of Buddhism, Bardo is a transitional state between death and rebirth) invisible to the living. Chief among these spirits are a churchman, a printer who died before he could consummate his marriage to his younger wife, and a gay man who committed suicide.
The spirits, seemingly unaware that they are dead, referring to their coffins as sick boxes, seek to protect Willie from a form of death, referred to by the citizens of the realm as "matterlightblooming" and from the more malicious inhabitants of their netherworld. They also hope to re-establish a connection between Willie and his father in the hope that he can return to the normal world as a precursor to their also doing so.
In portraying Lincoln's grief at the death of his son, the book is deeply moving, but given that it's primary subject is death, it is surprisingly light, and often genuinely humorous. Alongside Lincoln's grief, Saunders depicts the doubts which wrack him as a leader taking his country into war. He is forced to understand his own grief at a time when his decisions will inevitably lead to other deaths and other parents being similarly bereaved.
The other great theme is, unsurprisingly for the period, that of slavery and relationships between European and African Americans. Oppression and conflict continue into the twilight world, although the ultimate suggestion of where Lincoln obtained his final resolve to fight the war to its end is astonishing.