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Everyone, we are dead!

‘Everyone, we are dead!’

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2017)

This is a rare novel which lives up to its ecstatic reviews. Lincoln in the Bardo appears at first to be about the famous US President, Abraham Lincoln, mourning his young son, Willie, who died at home of typhoid in 1862, in the second year of the American Civil War. But when Willie is brought to the Washington cemetery, he disturbs the spirits of those who cannot accept that they have died – those who are ‘in the Bardo’, a Tibetan term for the transitional state between life and the hereafter.

It is these former-human spirits who tell the story of Abraham Lincoln’s intense and lonely mourning, while they continue their own ‘after-lives’ in short bursts of activity, whizzing around the cemetery, trying to grasp the essence of who they were. They hope somehow to get back ‘to that place’, the living world.

The book is narrated via snippets of dialogue between the spirits, interspersed with short quotes from contemporary newspapers, civil war diaries and more recent historians, like a series of off-stage comments from a hidden chorus. This takes a few pages to get used to, but it works really well if one persists, allowing both drama and a deeply reflective perspective.

The novel is shot through with a slow-burning compassion for the living and the dead, for what people might have become and what they think they failed to do. It is also sparklingly imaginative, creating a credible underworld, which is not without humour. At the same time, it gives a strong sense of the conflicting ways in which people interpret events, and how human judgement is partial and ultimately unnecessary. At one point near the end, the young boy-spirit Willie Lincoln, in a surge of innocent wisdom, shouts, ‘Everyone, we are dead!’ He says what none of the cemetery spirits want to know, and his truth has merciful consequences.

Mark Hudson

Fotos de Minnie Freudenthal e Manuel Rosário

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lives in London... BA Oxon, MA London

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