When I was a child, and resisting sleep because I was scared of ghosts – I grew up in a formerly haunted house, but that’s a whole other story – my mother would tell me, as her mother had told her, that good people are in Heaven with God and don’t want to leave, and bad people are in Hell with the Devil and aren’t allowed to, so there’s no such things. QED.
Of Purgatory, and the souls within that we were enjoined in school to pray would rest in peace, she made no mention. A waiting place, not Hell but not quite Heaven, where most of us are destined to serve time – so I was taught back then. But what if a restless soul decides to leg it back to Earth (thinks my six year old self, still too scared to sleep) without God or the Devil noticing?
There’s not much mention of Purgatory in the Catholic Church these days, possibly because it derives from books now classed as Apocrypha. So I’d all but forgotten about the concept…and then I came across Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
Per the blurb on the book jacket, ‘bardo’ is the name given in Tibetan tradition for a ‘transitional realm’. (Disappointingly my DP Encyclopedia of World Mythology doesn’t mention it.) The ‘hook’ for the story is the death of President Lincoln’s young son, Willie, and Lincoln’s subsequent visits to the dead boy’s crypt. Saunders uses these historical events as a springboard for an imaginative exploration of the liminal space between life and death and its inhabitants, call them what you will: restless souls, spirits, ghosts, energy, presences.
Saunder’s bardo is rooted in the physical: there’s a middle-aged man who died before consummating his marriage with his pretty, young wife, who manifests as naked with an erection so enormous his ‘member’ bounces as he talks; a young homosexual who slashed his wrists only to decide (too late) that he wants to live in the ‘vast sensual paradise’ that is the world, manifesting with multiple sets of eyes, hands and noses; a man of property who died of a heart attack and now floats like a compass needle, his head pointing horizontally to whichever property he’s worried about; three Bachelors, never loved, never had responsibilities, who fly above everyone playing innocent pranks.
But it’s not all ha ha hee hee. There’s the doting mother, died during surgery, tormented by three gelatinous orbs containing the likenesses of her three young daughters; the young, black, slave girl, raped so often in life that she’s rendered dumb in death. And on and on and on: the dead are legion.
And Saunder’s bardo is subject to its own chilling, natural laws: light blobs in the guise of friends and relatives that harry the dead to ‘speed (them) along’; vine-like tendrils that begin to encase Willie because children are not supposed to stay here – his fate presaged by the doom of “the Traynor girl”; the glimpse of the road to a very visceral judgement.
There are moments of genuine pathos, such as Lincoln, alone in the crypt, cradling his dead son, having doubts about sending other’s sons to their deaths (the American Civil War was being waged at the time). And an audacious final flourish has Lincoln leaving the cemetery inhabited by the spirit of a black man: “Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel that you are…turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do.”
The form of the book, too, deserves mention. Without narrator(s) or point(s) of view in the traditional sense, the story emerges via the voices of the dead interspersed with extracts from contemporaneous letters, newspaper reports, memoirs, and the like. The effect is theatrical; Greek-chorus-like:
“And as the sun came up, we prayed, each within ourselves, our usual prayer:
lawrence t. decroix
To still be here when the sun next set.
mrs. antoinette boxer
And discover, in those first moments of restored movement, that we had again been granted the great mother-gift:
robert g. twistings
percival “dash” collier”
If traditional historical fiction is your thing, you’ll have gathered by now that LITB isn’t it. On the other hand if you’re up for a book is funny, chilling, tender, sad, occasionally down-right weird, and possibly one of the most original novels you’ll ever have read…then what are you waiting for?
Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year.