Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

I’ve been waiting for almost a year to get my hands on this book. Ever since Liberty Hardy reviewed it on Litsy, I’ve been excited about it. It was finally released on February 14th. I saw it at the library while I was checking out other books and screamed, “Waitlincoln!” while I dove to the “current releases” shelf to grab my copy.

The premise is fascinating: Abraham Lincoln grieving for his son, Willy, who died from typhoid during the same night as a lavish party at the White House. Saunders explores Lincoln’s unbearable grief and his suffering knowing so many other fathers were also mourning their sons killed in the war he was responsible for.

It seems many readers either love or hate this book. I’m of the first camp, but I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. The format is unusual, but if you’re willing to surrender to Saunders’ delivery, it’s rewarding beyond measure. Lincoln in the Bardo is presented at first as excerpts from historical sources. Saunders lists various eyewitness accounts of the extravagant party at the White House, Lincoln’s reaction to Willy’s death, even the appearance of the moon on that fateful evening, showing the reader the fallibility of memory and how one event can merit several interpretations.

Saunders then introduces our main characters, the ghosts who inhabit the cemetery in Georgetown where little Willy is laid in a borrowed crypt. These souls have not passed on, not realizing, in fact, that they have died. Their adventures and catharses while rescuing Willy from purgatory are remarkable. Lincoln’s grief is palpable, as is Willy’s confusion and reluctance to leave his father. The ghosts themselves have difficulties of their own, with their passing on and with their inability to accept their faults during their mortal lives.

The book mostly reads like a stage play with multiple characters speaking brief lines of dialogue. Saunders’ approach helped me absorb the relationships among the characters through their conversations. It was an unusual and enlightening way to tell this story. This book is sad, at times hilarious, complex, and illuminating. If you find it confusing at first, don’t give up. You’ll grow to love the denizens of the bardo.

This book is a masterpiece. I highly recommend it. It was definitely worth waiting for.


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