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Lincoln in the Bardo is a stunning portrait of a violently divided America

Abraham Lincoln carries an urgent message in this remarkable novel of ghosts and war.

From Virginia to Tennessee, from east to west and from north to south, war was raging. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln had said – and the biblical prediction had been proved right. From 1861 to 1865 the United States were the divided states, riven by a war whose horror has not faded. But in February 1862 death came to Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s door when their 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. The couple were no stranger to grief; their son Edward had died at the age of three in 1850, not long before Willie was born. But Willie was the Lincolns’ blue-eyed boy, their darling. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was Mary’s seamstress and friend, left an account of the president’s grief. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder,” she wrote. “His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.”

Keckley’s words can be found threaded through George Saunders’s astonishing first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders is a literary hero in his native land – this novel went straight to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list – but until now he had published only short stories by way of fiction. Consequently, his name is less well known in Britain, even though his last book, The Tenth of December, won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2014. British readers may have come across his commencement speech to Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2013, a viral hit online that was published the following year as Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. But as far back as his debut in 1996, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders’s unusual sensibility has been apparent: a blend of humour and serious intent so finely balanced as to seem almost a magic trick. Although much of that first book was set in the not-too-distant future, it is clear from the title alone that the cataclysm of a riven nation was already on his mind. And that collection, like this novel, is populated not only by the living, but by the dead.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, little Willie Lincoln dies; but that is just the beginning of the story. He is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, where the president, alone, repeatedly visits the still body of his beloved son. There the spirits who inhabit the cemetery, and whose polyphonic chorus powers this beautiful book, encounter Lincoln the living man: his presence forces them to confront the fact of their own deaths. So the division of the country, the division between slave and free, is mirrored in a division between this world and the next. The novel’s speaking voices are punctuated with historical des­cription, some authentic, some invented, all perfectly judged.

Saunders gives readers two central narrators for his tale, which is structured more like a play than like a novel. Hans Vollman was a printer who remarried late in life and found more happiness than he might ever have dreamt of – happiness stolen from him when a heavy beam fell from the ceiling of his shop, cracking his skull and killing him. Roger Bevins III was a young man who fell in love with another young man, but the object of his love vowed to “live correctly”, and so Bevins slit his wrists; that he regretted the action the instant he performed it could not save him from the grave.

Neither Vollman nor Bevins is quite aware of being dead. One of the wonders of this novel is its characters’ expressions for their own state. After his accident, Vollman finds himself confined to a “sick-box”, not a coffin. Young Willie is sent not to a tomb but to a “white stone home”: the simple rhythm of these three words is like a chant running through the book. It is the task of Vollman and Bevins to help Willie – bewildered by his situation – escape from the cemetery. The spirits of children, we come to understand, do not belong in this place: “These young ones are not meant to tarry,” Bevins says. But it seems that Abraham Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery, and the power of his love, keep both himself and the boy in a bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist term signifying a transitional state. A third voice, that of the Reverend Everly Thomas, has a greater understanding of what his situation, and that of his fellows, might be; his knowledge is frightening rather than consoling.

As befits its sombre subject, this is a moving and deeply felt book. Its speaking spectres are haunted not only by their severance from their former lives but by what they suffered in those lives. Like Marley’s ghost, they wear the chains they forged in life.

One of the most remarkable feats of the novel is that no character, however briefly he or she may speak, feels extraneous: not Jane Ellis, whose marriage was bitterly unhappy: not Mrs Francis Hodge, who, kept as a slave in her lifetime, tried to be a friend to Litzie Wright, a young woman so brutalised by her rapists that she is rendered utterly silent, her speech a sequence of asterisks. And yet, somehow, there is always humour in this novel, as Saunders creates an invisible universe that is both terrible and wonderful. Vollman, whose life was cut short before his marriage was consummated, manifests as a man with an enormous “member” that is forever getting in his way; Bevins, in telling the awful story of his suicide, grows extra eyes and noses and hands, so that his body “all but vanished”. And, more than humour, there is that quality that Saunders has already told us he prizes so highly: kindness.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his portrait of America’s 16th president. It takes courage to reimagine so venerable a figure as Lincoln: but here his voice rings clear and true. We hear it when the spirits – Vollman, Bevins, the president’s departed boy – enter his body and so experience his thoughts, translating them for the reader. We hear how his love for Willie, his solitary sorrow, comes to bear on his thoughts about the war he must prosecute, the sorrow he must inflict on others:

Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?

These are urgent questions for any age, no matter what is going on in the world. Laura Miller, the excellent critic for the American online magazine Slate, has taken issue with Saunders for turning to historical fiction at a time when our best novelists ought to be addressing the peculiar and worrying times in which we live. “The timing on this thing is really, really bad,” she wrote, describing the book as a “melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel” and the author’s most “gently accessible work”: this last has the sound of faint praise. Granted, some novelists are busy scribbling away to address our political and cultural problems head on, most notably Howard Jacobson, whose novella Pussy (no prizes for guessing how he chose the title) will be published next month. Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, to be published in September, will feature “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair”, according to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape. Ali Smith’s Autumn, published late last year, was hailed as the first “post-Brexit” novel.

With no disrespect to those fine authors, not every novel written (or published) in the heat of the moment endures; not every enduring novel must stare directly at the sun. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the past, but its portrait of a violently divided nation, in which even the dead are discriminated against because of their race or social status, offers little reassurance. Abraham Lincoln’s need to steel himself for the task ahead, so powerfully realised by Saunders, will resonate with readers, if they, too, are willing to steel themselves for what lies ahead.

Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.

He would lead the rabble in managing.

The thing would be won.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a great novel; a human cry for action – and compassion. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury (343pp, £18.99)

Erica Wagner will be in conversation with George Saunders in a free Goldsmiths Prize/New Statesman event at Goldsmiths University,  London SE14, on 15 March:

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo, featuring Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and George Saunders (Audible)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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