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‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Who: George Saunders was, prior to Lincoln in the Bardo, an award-winning short-story writer, with his collection of stories Tenth of December particularly singled out for commendation. Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunder’s first novel, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

What: Young Willie Lincoln, the most beloved child of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln’s children, is dead. For one night, he finds himself in the bardo — that intermediate space between life and death in the Nepali tradition — mingling with other of his ilk. The dead who remain (they are slightly freaky a la Beetlejuice) are unaccepting of their fate; they believe they aren’t dead but merely ‘sick’ and their coffins are ‘sick-boxes’ where they recuperate. They cling on because they believe that they can be healed of their ‘ailment’ and thereby return to the material life that they are unable to give up.

Although most young children tend not to linger on in the bardo, Willie, believing that he has instruction from his father to stay, resists the call to move on. However, his guides in the bardo — a homosexual suicide, a printer engorged with lust and a terrified man of the cloth — know that to remain and wallow would bring about a grievous end to the boy. Matters are made worse by late night visit of Willie’s grief-stricken father, which convinces the young boy that his waiting is justified.

Why: Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most deserving Booker prize winners in recent memory. Centrally a study of grief, suffering and loss, it is also the role of attachment in contributing to these psychological states. Lincoln in the Bardo is an explication of the Buddhist concept of suffering as a self-inflicted pain brought about by the inability to separate the essential self from its desires. Being caught up in the tendrils of attachment prevents the ensnared from pursuing good, final ends — or again in the Buddhist tradition, from pursuing enlightenment. Attachment is fundamentally selfish, and the selfishness manifests physically in those unwilling to leave the bardo, i.e. those unwilling to set down their lives in the ‘former place’. Willie’s guides, for the first time in a long time, find themselves in a position to go beyond themselves to see that the young boy ‘passes on’.

Saunders’ narrative structure takes a little getting used to at the onset. He uses a pastiche of actual works to set the context for the night Willie dies, filling in the missing bits with his own accounts. He borrows extensively from the copious amount of Lincoln literature to set the background, revealing not only just how divided opinions over Lincoln and the Civil War were at the time, but also the fundamental untrustworthiness of eye-witness accounts. These divergent accounts are scattered throughout the novel, but a particularly telling one was a passage where these various eye-witnesses failed to provide a single, coherent account of the moon the evening before Willie died:

Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening. (In A Season of War and Loss by Ann Brighney)
In several accounts of the evening, the brilliance of the moon is remarked upon. (In Long Road to Glory by Edward Holt)
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds. (Wickett, op. cit.)
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly. (In My Life by Dolores P. Leventrop)

Nevertheless, the various individual voices, each tinged with their own specific set of attachments and back stories create a greater texture to the novel by providing, in various times and places, comedic relief, lush historic background and character tension to the overall narrative. But perhaps the winningest element of the novel is Saunders’ descriptions of loss and grieving — the beloved are not easy to give up.

Best/Worst Line: “’This is the hardest trial of my life,’ he confessed to the nurse, and in a spirit of rebellion this man, overweighted with care and sorrows, cried out: ‘Why is it? Why is it?'”

Verdict: A masterful study of loss, longing, grief and suffering with a touch of the whacky. Touching, funny and poignant. (9.5/10)

Trivia: The movie rights for Lincoln in the Bardo have been acquired by Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman. No cast, director or release date available as yet. It is a dark and atmospheric piece with fantastical elements, and would require the disciplined whimsy of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Just say no to Tim Burton.

Availability: Hard cover, RM79.95.

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‘Manhattan Beach’ by Jennifer Egan

Who: Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the postmodern novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. She takes a more traditional storytelling approach with historical novel Manhattan Beach, published last year.

What: The novel begins with Eddie Kerrigan paying a visit to mobster Dexter Styles at his home on Manhattan Beach. Eddie’s 11-year-old daughter Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father on this visit, and it leaves an indelible impression on her – she gleans from the encounter that Dexter is crucial to the survival of her family. Years later, her father has mysteriously disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard at a job once the exclusive purview of men, who are now soldiers abroad. By sheer will and gumption, Anna becomes the first woman diver at the Naval Yard, doing the job of repairing ships underwater. Then, a chance meeting with Dexter at a nightclub throws open a doorway to uncovering the complexities of her father’s life and why he vanished.

Why: The main narrative revolves around Anna Kerrigan and how she navigates a world vacated by her father and overshadowed by war, the Great Depression, and the shared responsibility of caring for her disabled sister, Lydia. It is a tale of quiet fortitude and doggedness, of coming into her own during an era of limited options and opportunities for women. But while the story is anchored by Anna’s life, the narrative switches between her perspective and that of the mobster, Dexter’s, chronicling his rise in the underworld. In the last third of the novel, the spotlight finally turns to Eddie and the misfortunes that led to his disappearance early in the story.

Essentially, this novel traces three distinct but intertwining stories recounted in the close third person to give the reader insight into their inner lives. Each character’s story is languidly told, replete with lush details and poetic nuance to the point where a less patient reader might find the pacing off-putting. A thread that connects all three is their individual need to break from their present circumstances, and the resulting consequences of attempting to do so. A constant prop is the ocean, but it does take on a metaphysical nature as it envelopes each of them in different ways.

Best/Worst Line: “He hungered for a sense of progress, of new things approaching while old familiar ones receded. It seemed far too long since he’d had that sensation.”

Verdict: It’s a sweeping novel with cinematic scope that unfolds at a protracted pace. (7.5/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.

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‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

Who: American Chinese author Celeste Ng’s much anticipated sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is the winner of the Goodreads Choice Award 2017 for fiction. It follows her standout debut, Everything I Never Told You.

What: The story begins with a literal fire, whereby someone has deliberately set ablaze the Richardson house, situated in Shaker Heights, an affluent neighbourhood. The reader is then taken back in time to reveal the history of the Richardson household, as well as mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren, who have taken up residence at a rental owned by the Richardsons. Their worlds mingle in unexpected ways but eventually collide as they find themselves on opposing sides when an old friend of the Richardsons tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby.

Why: The story plays out a bit like a soap but without the sordidness. While Ng takes her time to tell the story, it by no means drags on as she drops tantalising clues throughout the book to make this an engrossing read. Although the characters are not unfamiliar — the picture-perfect suburban Richardson family versus the enigmatic artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter — the nuanced manner in which Ng paints these portraits make them compelling.

At the centre of the intersection of these lives is the youngest Richardson, Izzy, torn between the two worlds on offer: a structured, rule-abiding life of security and stability, and a free-spirited, nomadic one that can promise little but nevertheless is more meaningful and substantial. Fundamental values rub up against one another leading to an inevitable clash of worlds, which in turn spark ‘little fires everywhere’. That these sparks would set something smouldering further deep inside that would potentially turn into a raging inferno becomes the tipping point of the novel.

It isn’t quickly apparent, but at the heart of the story is an examination of what it means to be a mother and the bonds that bind. The decision to follow or not follow one’s passions and where that inevitably leads, for better or worse, is also a thread in the book.

Best/Worst Line: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”

Verdict: Ng is a deft storyteller, pulling the reader in from the get-go. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM72.90.

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‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

Who: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. Reservoir 13 was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

What: Reservoir 13 is a novel about a mystery, but is not itself a mystery novel. The book opens with a girl lost upon the moors of the rural English countryside. Nearby villagers anxiously search for the missing Rebecca, Becky or Bex, as she is sometimes known. Her disappearance would anchor the novel which unfolds over 13 years, during which life in the village carries on — people are drawn in, people leave; they fall in love, they fall apart; new lives are had, older ones die. The foxes, badgers and bugs observe their natural cycles, as do the birds, butterflies and bees. But the spectre of the missing girl remains in the collective psyche, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and memories.

Why: One of the finest novels we’ve read in recent memory, McGregor’s narrative structure ingeniously pulls the reader into the book. It’s incredibly meta and sets the reader up from the start to think that a mystery is there to be solved. There are hints and foreshadowing that the resolution is in the very next line, or paragraph, or page, or chapter. The reader is driven by this singular temptation, but meanwhile McGregor creates a lush, vivid background, ostensibly to contextualise the mystery. The man lies. He is not creating a background, but another, richer foreground that will supersede the mystery.

With his austere but elegant prose, his omniscient camera flits from scene to scene in his massive single paragraph structures, controlling the attention of the reader — first to the park keeper who is conducting his annual test of the river water, next to a group of teenagers drinking down a bottle of stolen wine, then to a farmhand who is necking with the parish council’s chair’s wife, and then to reports of sightings of the missing girl who may or may not be responsible for the various incidences of arson in the village. Each year that passes in the village is told within a chapter. The villagers grow a year older, perhaps not wiser, and the same narrative device is repeated to remind readers that though everything is different, it is nevertheless the same.

This may sound a painful and clumsy attempt to stall the progress of the plot; on the contrary, the reader soon finds these secondary arcs to be more important than the resolution of the missing girl. How does Irene deal with an abusive special-needs son? Will the Jackson boys’ flock survive the winter? Will the career-minded Su Cooper adjust to being the mother of rambunctious twin boys? It is these moments in the lives of these villagers — arrayed as a field of snapshots of many separate but interconnected moments — that carry the readers’ sympathies. Resolution, he reminds us, is not found within the solving of a grand mystery, but in the consummation of each individual moment in our lives.

Best/Worst Line: ‘The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She had been looked for everywhere… There were dreams about finding her on the night she went missing, stumbling across her on the moor in the lowering dark and helping her back to her parents. In the dreams the parents said thank you, briefly, and people muttered something about it being no problem at all.’

Verdict: Friggin’ incredible. It’s not a perfect 10 because readers stubbornly clinging on to the need for plot development (a justifiable need, in our opinion) may be frustrated by this book. (9/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.