Lincoln in the Bardo

When it comes to the American Civil War, many people in the UK only know what they’ve picked up from films, and Simpsons episodes. But while it would never be my specialist subject on Mastermind, I do know a bit more than average about the Civil War, as it was the origins of modern formaldehyde embalming. Thomas Holmes’ services were in sore need with so many soldiers dying so far from home, sometimes on hot, balmy battlefields, and so many families wanted their loved ones home. However, before he could get to work, he had to demonstrate this new-fangled technique, and he sought permission to embalm Col. Ellsworth, who was killed while removing a Confederate flag. Mrs Lincoln was so impressed with the results, she allowed her young son Willie, to be embalmed when he died at only twelve years old, and later, Abraham too was treated. This meant when this heartbreaking book describes a father opening his son’s coffin on the night of his funeral, as he sits in the ‘white stone home’ as the other ghosts in this book call it(pictured below), I was comforted by the fact that I knew he would be fresh and fragrant, and facial features set in calm, restful repose.

This is one of those books that really suits the form of an unabridged, but dramatised audio book. The story is told by a cast of characters who live in the cemetery, watching poor Abraham mourn his son, speaking of their own pasts, and often arguing with each other. They have all ‘tarried’ at the graveyard as they had unfinished business, the most vocal of which, Hans Vollman (voiced by Nick Offerman), never got to consummate his marriage to his beautiful bride, and another, a suicide, who regretted his action, Roger Bevins III (David Sedaris), and wants to experience as much of the world as he can, now it is too late. They ghostly forms are mutated to emphasise what they want most, meaning the latter has excess limbs, eyes and ears, and the former, while a very respectable, and kind-hearted man, is permanently naked and lumbered with dragging about what sounds like a penis the size of a prize marrow. There are a multitude of famous voices in this production (Don Cheadle, Susan Sarandon, Jeffrey Tambor and more), and this was a particularly rich version, that I know I will listen to it again.


The books also features readings and quotes from a wealth of sources (librarians need to get buried, too) which were all highly educational regarding the Civil War and life in the White House. This books is a huge experience, and I’m not surprised it’s got such good reviews.

My only complaint is I don’t want it to be this way. Their world of death is not an attractive one. The spirits have to return to their graves in the daytime, lay with their remains. And unlike Neil Gaiman’s cemetery dwellers in ‘The Graveyard Book’, where the inhabitants rub along together like a village of characters, these poor people are trapped in a sharp, urgent way.

This is not a vision of death I want to subscribe to. It’s always been a hope of mine that when morons and evil gits die, they are shown the error of their moronic and evil gitty ways in some unknown but effective format. And then when the good, but especially the miserable, suffering people die, they are completely released from pain, that all of it is washed away as they dance with otters under a waterfall of unmitigated peace and joy, with a buffet lunch put on after. A nice one, things like pasta salad from Waitrose and sweet potato fries, not some beige sausage roll and crisps affair. However, when the book shows the slaves rising from their mass graves, one unable to speak due to all the unspeakable abuse, another with worked-away bloody stumps for hands and feet, well, that’s grim. And then their abusers rise, and a race war breaks out, and I have to remind myself that it’s just a book, and George Saunders doesn’t know for a fact the afterlife is not all dancing otters and waterfalls, and proper baked cheesecakes, not those cheap, bland frozen affairs.