Lincoln in the Bardo
I’ve been lucky enough to have read two masterpieces in a row. The first was The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and the second is this one. It’s the first one I read by George Saunders and is yet another occasion in which a Booker Prize winner doesn’t disappoint me.
I have seen the book in several stores and always refrained from buying it. In one store where I was weaker than usual, I started reading the first pages and it felt weird. I told myself, I might not like this one. More than a year passed.
I borrowed the book electronically from the Tallinn Public Library via Libby. A few pages in, and my feeling was confirmed: I hated it. But it’s only because the format is very peculiar; once I got familiar with it, I loved it like few other books in my life.
It must be because of the theme. Death is something that shakes me very deeply. And in this story, all characters are dead, except one of the most loved and hated presidents of the history of the USA, Lincoln himself. The book is structured as something like a theater play, with characters speaking in real time. But the name of a character doesn’t appear before they speak, but after, as it was a citation. And this device is used to blend the characters’ voices with extracts from the wealth of historical literature covering Lincoln, “his” civil war, and the premature death of his firstborn.
The souls of the characters that tell the story (how to avoid the cliché of saying “chorally”?) are trapped in some limbo (the Bardo of the title, which is never called that anywhere in the book) come from different historical ages, thus their language sounds more or less modern (what an exceptional idea), and all share the same delusion: that they are still living. And this gives the narration some extremely powerful because the sadness that some of them feel is especially poignant for the reader, that knows how futile are their hopes of ever getting back to their lives.
A book that is an experience. Almost made me cry in several spots. Please go get it and read it.