The Man Booker Prize 2017 winner Lincoln in the Bardo is an astounding interspersion of historical truth and fiction. The story is set amidst the backdrop of American Civil War in February 1862. Abraham Lincoln’s 11 year old son, Willie Lincoln dies, leaving his grieving family behind, especially a heart broken Abraham Lincoln, who visits his son’s grave several times during the span of the night over which the story takes place. George Saunders has woven an extraordinary story from this seed of reality.
Post death, Willie Lincoln enters a transitional state called ‘the bardo’ as per the Tibetan tradition which is the state of existence between death and rebirth. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped here along with many other spirits in the midst of their incessant chatter. All these spirits, full of the stories from the time when they were alive, have a lot to say. Only, they don’t consider themselves dead. They refer to their memories from being as alive as their experiences in the ‘previous place’.
The story has been told in a very unusual manner. Although it has been narrated by three spirits for the most part – hans vollman, roger bevins iii, the reverend everley thomas – other spirits keep appearing in the scenario telling their own tales about their lives.
A very heavy air of sadness hangs in the story since the theme of familial loss is recurring in the book with Abraham Lincoln’s moving ponderings on the transient nature of life and his sorrowful realization that letting go is a necessary condition to keep moving ahead in life.
This book is witty and funny from time to time with the observations that make various parts of the prose very amusing and penetrating the thoughts of the reader at the same time.
This book reads like a play because of the way it has been written with the names of the characters below their dialogues. The general demeanor of the spirits trapped in the bardo is that of acceptance of the way of their existence and the apathy of their condition was very saddening to read. Reading about the ‘bardo’ as a transitional realm in the story made it very real for me as a reader because of how convincingly it was written.
Not so subtly, this book has tackled many social issues as well. The spirits of black people are ill treated by some spirits of white people. My interpretation of this particular scenario is that George Saunders has highlighted the extent of deep rootedness of racial prejudice, that even after death it is not going away and this is one sad reality of our world. The spirits trapped in the bardo did much more than just bemuse and perplex the readers. They very deftly, pointed out our own failings as human beings and our need to shake ourselves out of the delusions that we conveniently let ourselves get lost in.
Although this book breaks free from reality and takes a dive into magical realism, there is nothing remotely fictional about the human condition highlighted in the book.
I am very happy to have read this gem of a book because it lent me a fresh perspective, invoked many latent emotions and gave me a wonderful reading experience. A well deserved winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2017.
My Rating : 5/5 stars
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