Tibetan Buddhists call the transition period between
death and rebirth “bardo.” Lincoln
in the Bardo takes place just after the death from typhoid fever
of the president’s beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, in February 1862.
Willie was temporarily interred in a mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery in
Georgetown, and sources at the time said that Lincoln did indeed visit
the crypt more than once.
That much is fact. In Saunders’s book, Willie is one of the disembodied occupants of the cemetery who roam around and speak with one another. Their stories unfold in an unusual format of ongoing dialogue more like a play than a novel. The other spirits know that it’s important for children to move on to their next stage quickly, but Willie wants to stick around for his father’s visits. Therefore, the three main spirits — a gay man who killed himself following rejection by his lover, an elderly minister, and a middle-aged printer who died before he could consummate his marriage — try to influence Lincoln to let his son go.
The heartbreaking tales extend grief beyond Lincoln to the nation at war and the human condition. Finally, realizing that suffering unites everyone, Lincoln is able to let Willie go and renew his commitment to win the Civil War.
Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel. It was the first time an American had won.
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