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Lincoln In the Bardo - Man Booker Prize 2017

George Saunders is a confirmed maestro of the American short story. In Lincoln in the Bardo, his debut novel, he invites us into a book that conflates a (sort of) ghost story with Buddhist leanings in the historical setting of the American Civil War. By Sat Bal

The novel concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie and the interplay between human and spiritual grieving. Saunders’ talent lies in building these disparate worlds such that we suspend belief and buy into his fiction. Thus we begin to accept the motivations of the spirits of Roger Bevins, Hans Vollman and the Reverend Everly Thomas, the principal narrators, whose observations take shape when young Willie dies and is interred in a crypt in their cemetery.

Buddhists see the ‘bardo’ as a spiritual holding point for human demise from which the onward fate of the spirit will be determined. Shades of Dante’s purgatory persist and, while the doom of the spirits feels laden, a hope surrounds the fate of Willie Lincoln. Partly this is because children are not meant to linger by their bodies in the cemetery and Bevins, Vollman and the Rev wish to speed Willie’s spirit on to a more promising destination. Indeed, the story unfurls over one single night.

Their own impedance to the afterlife sees them cast as grotesque mutations with Bevins’ body bearing multiple eyes and severed hands following his suicide. Yet these graphic deformities are attenuated by a narrative that tiptoes around death via euphemisms. A new vocabulary rises up here with a coffins labelled a “sick box” and “matterlightblooming" the flash that signals the next exit while the cemetery is a “hospital yard.”

The author cleverly uses the device of polyphony to introduce the many neighbours of this yard, their names signing off their comments. Sometimes one-liners, sometimes paragraphs, the comments vacillate from statement to conversation with the dialogue occasionally interrupted by a new spirit speaker - or several.

Although there’s an air of detachment with humans unable to see the spirits and the sense that the spirits talk only among themselves, cutting off the reader, the story isn’t without emotional tugs. This is best portrayed when Abraham Lincoln comes to grieve over his son’s body. Wille’s spirit is delighted to see his father arrive at his crypt yet mortally frustrated that his father is unaware of his presence:

Bursting out of the doorway, the lad took off running toward the man, look of joy on his face.

roger bevins iii

Which turned to consternation when the man failed to sweep him up in his arms as…must have been their custom.

the reverend everly thomas

The imagination and compassion that weave this novel together suggest that George Saunders should stick with the novel format and take a break from the short story.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury Hardback £18.99

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