There has been lots of hype and many glowing reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo, but I have to confess that I can’t see what all the fuss is about. I think I was expecting more. Without a doubt it is an experimental novel; it certainly shows us that pushing the boundaries with fiction has not reached a natural conclusion yet. I just didn’t feel the love, even if the New York Times bestseller list disagrees.
The story is about the death of Willie Lincoln, the young son of President Abraham Lincoln. The way the book is written is both unusual and inventive, with the proceedings being described from a whole range of different perspectives. There are 108 chapters, all short and all split into several view points. Sometimes these are short descriptions of an event which might be taken from a range of text books, histories or contemporary observations. Sometimes they are totally contradictory about the same event. At other times they are a dialogue of several characters who are all describing the events which they see before them. The novelty is that most of these characters are the dead people who inhabit the cemetery where the young boy is laid to rest. When we study history there are often conflicting accounts of the same events. What people see from the front of an audience is often quite different to what people see from the back, but the novelty of these different perspectives soon wears a little thin.
The conversations within the spirit world can be anything from fun to downright smutty. The way they are written, with each view point being attributed to a person with their name indented in small print under each passage, breaks the flow of the narrative and I eventually stopped reading the names themselves, so that I could focus more on the story and dialogue and less on the distraction they provided.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a sort of ghost story, in which the ghosts are as much in denial about their own continued existence as Abraham Lincoln is about the loss of his son. Some are even in denial about their own passing, and while there is a certain amount of humour about this, I finished the book uncertain as to whether I had been reading humour or history approached from a different perspective. The bardo is a Tibetan term for the transitional space that sits between life and death, and some believe that when in that space all emotions become amplified. That is certainly true in this book, but I am afraid that I cannot give it the praise that many have lavished. The best I can do is a shrug of the shoulders; different.