Book Club / Lincoln in the Bardo | Book Club
The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of Ink@84 – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
George Saunders is America’s master of the short story, and in his first full-length work of fiction he has daringly reinvented the narrative form. Lincoln In The Bardo constructs a novel out of a series of monologues and quotes, some only a few words long, which seamlessly weave factual accounts from the period with fictional narrative. Entertaining and audacious, this is a funny, poignant, thoughtful and outrageously inventive book, with history boldly leaping off each page.
The story takes place in 1862 over a long night of agonizing grief, during which President Lincoln visits his son’s crypt. Willie, aged 11, has succumbed to typhoid fever in the early days of the Civil War and has just been laid to rest. While the nation tears itself asunder, Lincoln struggles to make sense of his favourite child’s death.
Around him a chorus of ghosts look on, each refusing for their own reasons to cross over: this is the bardo, a Tibetan notion of a liminal place between life and death. As the novel unfolds, both we and Willie are treated to their stories: wealthy landowners, slaves, whores, downtrodden wives, dissolute young men – people of every station and colour. All have been wronged, neglected, overlooked or misunderstood, and as Willie soon discovers, ‘none was content.’
Principal among these are the novel’s two main narrators: Vollman and Bevins. The former has been cruelly snatched from late middle age just before consummating marriage with his much younger wife; the latter has been betrayed by his male lover for another, so slits his wrists, only to instantly regret his rashness. Like dozens of others, both haunt the graveyard in the mistaken belief that they will somehow be allowed to re-inhabit their former lives.
Young Willie is laid to rest on the day that news arrives of the Union victory at Fort Donelson, with casualties of more than a thousand soldiers, ‘the dead heaped and piled like threshed wheat.’ Late that night, Vollman and Bevins watch as Lincoln arrives alone astride a horse ‘far too small for him’ and requests entry to the crypt from the watchman. Overcome with emotion, Lincoln pries open the casket to hold Willie’s body one last time.
Moved by his father’s grief, the departed spirit of the boy wills himself back into his corpse so that he can rest once more in his father’s arms. The anguished Lincoln wrestles with his conscience, wondering whether such an act is ‘unholy’, and concludes that this ‘secret bit of weakness shores’ him up, making it more likely that he ‘will do his duty in other matters.’ When Lincoln finally tears himself away, he promises he will return again soon.
And therein lies the problem: children in the bardo are not treated the same as adults, unable to escape, condemned instead to an eternity of suffering. So Vollmans and Bevin must persuade young Willie that he must ignore his father’s promise and cross over quickly into death, something they themselves have not been brave enough to do.
Saunders is well-known in America for ‘slipstream’ writing: that which incorporates fantastical elements into otherwise realist fiction; he has said that the blending of real and surreal enables him to ‘hone in’ on emotional truths. The question of truth lies at the heart of this novel: over the course of its pages Saunders ranges freely across issues of family, conscience, race, morality, belief, life and death. But ultimately it is young Willie who must guide Bevins and Vollman to the realisation that while suffering lies at the core of all human existence, grief must not become their master.
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