President Lincoln's son Willie dies and is put into a crypt. The ghosts in the cemetery are concerned that he has not swiftly moved on. They fear that, like them, he will be trapped by the failure to accept that they are not lying in sick-boxes in their sick-forms waiting to be revived from their illness. Trapped by regret.
Then the President comes into the crypt and takes his son's body from the coffin and embraces it.
This book is built of snippets, sometimes garnered from the extensive historical literature about this period in the Lincoln presidency. The rest is snippets of conversation between some very strange ghosts.
The whole book, winner of the 2017 Booker, is beautifully written but fundamentally weird. I can't decide whether to be overwhelmed by its brilliance or to be amused by its strangeness. Both, perhaps.
Nice lines which give us much to ponder about life and death and regret:
- "I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gist of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise" (C 9)
- "Their warm flesh, steaming breath, moist eyeballs, chafing undergarments." (C 24)
- "We had been ... loved. ... Our departures caused pain. ... remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory." (C 25)
- "You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore." (C 29)
- "A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured. It costs you nothing. Why not try?" (C52)
- "Time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do ... and then are cruelly punished for it." (C81)
- "The king-types who would snatch the apple from your hand and claim to have grown it." (C 94)
- "He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider." (C 96)
An extraordinary book by a skilled story-teller. September 2018; 343 pages