I bought ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ the year after it won the prestigious ‘Booker Prize’. At the bookshop, I was oscillating between ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders and ‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood. Well, Atwood being Atwood and Saunders being relatively unknown to me at that point…I should have technically Googled and picked my choice but I decided not to.
I looked at the two book covers and to tell you the truth, I wanted nothing but this beautiful cover with green entwined vines and the picture of the young boy printed with ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ in a spooky font. The title ‘Lincoln in the Bardo‘ subtly gave me the vibe of a historical fiction. (I am blindly inclined towards historical fiction)
To begin with, I didn’t even know the meaning of ‘Bardo’ but nonetheless, it seemed exotic. Exotic, it is, for it is the state you reach after death and before the next birth as per the Tibetan belief. So was Lincoln a Tibetan? Not known to me and has no link to the story.
The premise of President Lincoln’s emotions through the course of his dear son’s illness and untimely demise, leading to his visit to the cemetery holds its strength in fiction writing. But, this is not historical fiction in the true sense; it is an experimental book that includes historical fiction, fantasy, and dark humour.
You may also like Pastoralia, short story by George Saunders
Willie Lincoln was only 11 when he died in February 1862 of typhoid fever. The Lincolns’ third son was said to be their favorite, and after Willie was interred in a borrowed mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, it was said that Abraham Lincoln, returned to that cemetery several times. Newspapers reported that the president visited the crypt to open his son’s coffin and hold his body.
What happens in the book? A cacophony of voices, Willie and the other members of the cemetery have their views, opinions and personal issues raised in this state of purgatory. There is the blame ridden President, torn between grief and political responsibility against the Civil War backdrop.
‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is more of a ghost story with an interlude to the Lincolns. There are all the elements of supernatural – limitation on the ghosts to cross the iron gate of the cemetery and yet, existing with a belief of being in a sick box rather than a coffin. More than anything, this is an exceptionally ‘Experimental’ book in terms of its narrative. You can either love this book or close it by the turn of the second page. One book that I would say, don’t judge by the cover.
In an interview with Vulture.com, George Saunders revealed how he decided on this first book cover. He said, ‘I got a few designs, and this one just leapt out at me as being so weirdly in the spirit of the book. It wasn’t just a picture of Lincoln. I see it as being at dusk, and I thought it picked up the feeling of America in the mid-19th century — half pastoral, half burgeoning industrial. And it just had a feeling of mystery that I really liked.’ Though, I fail to connect with this book cover.
I hold the white version of the book cover with green vines and Willie’s picture on it. But, I can hardly look at this picture now.