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On the February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln died of typhoid fever at the age of 11. This was particularly tough for his father, President Abraham Lincoln, who was also trying to fight the American Civil War at the same time. This tragic event is used as the backdrop and playground for George Saunders’ historical fantasy novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
From the first page, Saunders promises a fashionable and modern sense of cleverness. Arranged marriages are frowned upon. Numerous historical sources are knitted together to tell one coherent story. This is a 21st century novel, even though the book is set in 1862.
Yet the reader soon realises that this is used as a springboard. We are catapulted to the “Bardo”, the world where the dead go. All the ghosts who inhabit the Bardo come across as different narrators, who “take over the story” for a few paragraphs at a time and speak in their own unique prose. This constant code-switching tells one overlapping story but offers different perspectives. For example, Abraham Lincoln is described by one onlooker as sobbing, and by another as gasping. Yet in between all these literary techniques, which may make it hard to read, there is a beautiful simplicity.
James Joyce’s Ulysses, a modernist Bible, can be boiled down to a man coming to grips with his wife cheating on him. Much in the same way, Lincoln in the Bardo, underneath its arty-farty elitist exterior, offers something worth reading.
This is a story of loss and death. The use of the Bardo gives the dead a voice. People who would not have been present in the novel are able to speak from beyond the grave.
A book which may seem complex can seem very digestible once you’ve put it down.