Lincoln in the Bardo

“Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now we must lose them.”

In honor of the Man Booker Prize winner being announced yesterday, and also because I am seriously lagging on my reading list so I can’t write about the winner since I haven’t read it yet, I decided to write about last year’s winner.

Last year, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo took the grand prize as the Man Booker Book of the Year.  Although it’s been sitting on my shelf since it won last October, I just managed to finish it yesterday – right on time to order the 2018 winner, Anna Burn’s The Milkman.  I am glad that I was so late in reading Lincoln in the Bardo, however, because October was the perfect month to read it:  the novel takes place over the length of one long, solitary night in a graveyard.

Solitary because the novel’s focus is on a single living character, Abraham Lincoln, and his lonely midnight sojourn to his young son’s grave.  Lincoln’s internal dialogue bombards the reader with tangible, raw waves of emotions.  Emotions that are vivid and familiar because they are emotions that we all have suffered: loss, grief, hopelessness, anger, regret…

Amplifying the palpable sense of loss is Saunders’ brilliant juxtaposition of Lincoln’s solitary grieving with a cacophony of voices: both historical and fictional, but all long dead.  Like us, these bodiless voices have experienced the emotions manifesting in Lincoln, and like us, they can act only as mere bystanders to his grief.  Both we and the voices are confined by time and space to the memory of our own losses and grief.

As the story matures, however, the reader – and the voices – come to realize that despite our seemingly individualized experiences, everyone must come to terms with death and accept that those who we love will eventually die.  And it is through this collective realization – and the realization that it is the love that makes life worth it, even with the eventual loss – that the voices in our book are able to find release and move on.

 

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