Originally published October 2018
It’s an upcoming author chat that forced my hand to lift a book off my perpetual TBR pile — last year’s Man Booker winner, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders.
And now I am left wondering if he was listening to The Clash’s “Combat Rock” while he toiled away on this tale of President Lincoln’s overwhelming grief for his young son Willie.
When I first asked a friend about this book, knowing she had already finished it, the look she gave was all I needed to know — a good read, but would fall in line with other similarly good work such as “All the Light We Cannot See” and “A Gentleman in Moscow” — exquisite storytelling, but the kind of book that you have to commit to spending time with. In other words, not something that you absolutely can’t put down until you finish it.
So color me surprised when I discovered I had raced through it.
Saunders’ story of a graveyard full of spirits caught between two worlds grabbed me in a way I had not expected. I found myself immensely entertained at the notion of an otherworldly culture clash, where the paupers intermingle with high society, gay with the religious and slaves with the free.
It’s not much of a spoiler to offer the most basic of plot lines — a contingent of spirits caught in the in-between scheme to help a young-but-certainly-dead Willie Lincoln move forward to the hereafter, employing a visit from his father to make the choice between staying and going a clearer one.
But what readers might not be prepared for is the inevitable inner dialogue about the meaning of death and that supposed hereafter and if it, even temporarily, wants to make you re-evaluate your life choices. (Because, listen George, if that’s an accurate depiction of what believers think Hell is, oh my God I don’t want to go there. I’d like that door with the really really really nice silk behind it as an option.)
The ghosts so carefully depicted by Saunders have the capacity to divide readers into opposite camps when it comes to naming a favorite. For me, I’d have to go with Betsy and Eddie Baron, if for nothing more than the absolutely necessary comic relief they provide. Eddie’s departure is on point.
One could argue that the ending is designed perhaps to make people think harder about death as a mechanism to determine how we live and what we make of our purpose on this plane, and in that, there’s something for the hard core literary fan, along those that simply are looking for a really good old-fashioned ghost story.