The 2017 Booker Prize winner, Lincoln in Bardo is historical fiction, a bold and intrepid venture by George Saunders. Seemingly an impossible task, this one knocks your socks off in every possible way.
Set in the backdrop of civil war, Saunders has woven it out of a single thread, an incident in 1862, which to a casual observer might seem inconsequential on the face of it. President Lincoln’s ten-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever and a grieving Lincoln had been reported in newspapers, making multiple visits to Oak Hill Cemetery Georgetown where the boy was interred in a crypt, holding the body on his lap. Building upon this episode, Saunders has framed an innumerable array of ghosts, roving about in a state of afterlife known as ‘the Bardo’ in Buddhist culture, the boy’s ghost one among these. Each one holds on to the belief of their existence and aliveness, fancies a journey back in time to the previous place and is ensnared in dreams not materialized, lust, vindictiveness, redemptive ambitions, compunctions and all those temporal afflictions and aspirations of the earthly-minded.
Hoping against hope, they go on doing their utmost to perennialize their actuality, fighting back the angelic demons and bottling up their own innate urges pertinaciously so as to cling on to that realm. But before too long, they succumb to the irrefutable factual verity of the final exit and break loose from the material realm to a spiritual one, the novel, thus sailing smoothly to its denouement.
Throughout the course of a profusive avalanche of spirits, the novel subsumes a few mortals, Lincoln one among them, their respective realms amalgamating at times. Saunder’s prose is enthralling and embosomed by magical realism redolent of Garcia’s works. Set in Fournier typeface, the print is appealing, all the more reason to read this one though secondary.
And to be honest, I loathed it proportionately as I liked it. As much as the seductive prose, polyphonic and spectral, peppered with worldly wisdom to boot, the cacophony was overpoweringly insufferable. I could bear with a few ghosts, but not a whole lot of them. The more you start to get engrossingly near, unwittingly getting teleported to the uncanny dimension, the more cacophonous and psychedelic it turned out to be. In fact, to cut a long story short, the read was cerebrally and spiritually exacting by all means. For all it’s title, the novel is not an exclusive Lincoln story, but a hotchpotch of personified diaphanous shadowy apparitions roaming around Oak Hill Cemetery, ruminating their past, their present and future crisscrossing each other.
While not intending to sound captious in the least, this analysis could yet be taken as one that borders on subjective, this is what I have felt straight from the shoulder.
Still, I am in awe of the author who dared spin such a scenario from a flimsy thread, a roiling torrent of dissonant speechification, of getting carried away in its vortex of magical realism!
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