This is a very weird book indeed. If you are recently bereaved or inclined to believe in spirits and ghosts it’s probably best not to start reading. Also, if you start reading without any idea what the book is about you will probably give up after about thirty pages. It is not what you could call accessible! This has clearly been the case with a sizeable percentage of the reviewers and I can completely understand why.
So, what do you need to know? First, the action takes place in the cemetery where the son of Abraham Lincoln, Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest. After the funeral, the father comes back twice to visit the tomb. Second, the ‘bardo’ of the title comes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and describes a place where the the spirits of the dead pause, or simply hang about, on their way to heaven or hell. And, third, the strange people who keep commenting on the action in little gobbets are the lately dead occupants of the cemetery ‘bardo’, entertained or disrupted by the arrival of the president’s son. There are also snippets from other documentary sources and contemporary histories. I’ve no idea if these are real or fictional.
That’s enough to get you started so is the book worth reading? I wasn’t sure to start with because I didn’t think the conceit of having events described by the spirits of dead people was going to work. Amazingly, Saunders allows them to develop as characters through minimal amounts of information about them and we find out gradually why they are there and why they are as they are. It all gets quite quite Rabelaisian because their appearances reflect the ways they died and lived and they also seem to morph in grotesque ways perhaps reflecting the decay of their bodies. It is actually quite funny, as it is when we meet some of the other occupants but I sensed that Saunders was pushing his luck at times using the dead to castigate aspects of the living that he doesn’t like.
The portrayal of Lincoln and his son is desperately sad. The father is a broken man and the son tries to reach out to him from the spirit world. There’s a lot of equally tragic back story about his death. The spirits are also used to make references to slavery and the Civil War. I’m not sure this is developed enough to work effectively in plot terms but I don’t want to add any spoilers.
The book has an ending of sorts which wraps some stuff up quite neatly and which leads on to whether it is actually a good book and whether it should have won the Booker prize. In terms of word count it isn’t very long and in some ways because it is the simple unfolding of one scenario it might have made a better, long, short story. There is not what you might call sustained plot development, subtle characterisation or thematic development either but I can see why the jury got charmed by it – in many ways it is a quite extraordinary piece of writing. I also wonder if they got swayed by the intellectual, insider reviews particularly the American ones and the jury also seem to be very conscious that this is now a ‘world’ prize as if the winners have to be more portentous. Anyway, it’s a cracking read and I would still have given the Booker prize to Autumn by Ali Smith but that’s just my view!