I read this book on holiday in Belgium last year. Having forgotten to pack a novel I scoured almost every book in the Waterstones at St. Pancras station before settling on this Booker prize winning novel by George Saunders.
Lincoln in the Bardo fictionalises a period in Abraham Lincoln’s life immediately after the death of his son Willie. The story alternates between factual accounts of what happened at the time and the observations of ghosts in the graveyard where young Willie is buried. Lincoln visits the grave several times over the course of an evening, something that causes costernation and intrigue among the ghosts.
The bardo of the title is the Buddhist concept of limbo. Souls that were over-attached to their previous lives are unable to move on to the next. These characters are both grotesque and hilarious. The two principal ghosts are Hans Volman and Roger Bevins III. The former died in a horrible accident before consumating his marriage to the love of his life. Mr Bevins took his own life, unable to cope with the scorn of his homosexuality, but realised during the act of taking his life that he wanted to live.
These stories and many others are told alongside the tragic tale of Willie Lincoln and the grief of his father. They are by turns tragic, comic and life-affirming. They are told in sections that almost read like the script of a play, the testimonies of ghosts.
These testimonies, together with the historical excerpts, form a somewhat experimental novel. One might be forgiven for wondering whether it truly is a novel at all. But often the best novels are those that really mutate the form of what a novel should be. It’s why novels are called novels, they’re meant to be about creating new forms of human experience.
I read this in several days - it would have been just one day had I been at home. Alone for the day in Bruges (of all places!) I spent most of an afternoon in a café reading this because it was so good. Leafing through it to remind myself for this post lead me to reading the whole thing again. It’s like a friend now, something completely different from anything in my collection. Do yourself a favour and read it.