Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Genre: Supernatural Dark Humour
Rating: 3/5

It is February 1862 – America is going through a terrible civil war. President Lincoln’s son, Willie dies, and is kept in the crypt. Lincoln is grief-stricken, and visits the crypt several times to hold his child’s body. This is recorded history.

Many religions talk about a transitory realm between life and death in which ghosts of dead persons with unfulfilled desires roam, unwilling to return to the unknown beyond. Bardo is this intermediate realm in Tibetan tradition.
The author has spun a story out of a historical fact and a mystical concept.

Lincoln sits in the crypt holding the dead body. Ghosts in this bardo urge Willie’s spirit to get inside his father’s body so that he can communicate with the latter. They themselves do not want to exit this realm, still chasing what they have left behind – racial discriminations, attachment to children, attachment to land, and attachment to their sexual desires – gay, other person’s or even own wife. Lincoln, on the other hand, is torn between memories of his son, and the price in terms of lives lost in the civil war.

The book is hilarious, and also touching. But it is an unusual book in its writing style. Many pages comprise of only excerpts from letters of the time to move the story forward. Many paragraphs are almost poetical.

It was a difficult read for me because of the writing style and the genre. I could not understand the story for the first 50 pages. I had almost given up, but as I got a hang, I could complete the book. In the final analysis, I would not have picked this book on my own – I purchased it as it was the Book of the Month in one of my book clubs. The book may appeal to followers of supernatural dark humour.

Incidentally, the book is winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017.

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