Lincoln in the Bardo // George Saunders

Wow.  This one almost left me speechless.  Lincoln in the Bardo is so experimental and so well-done.  It shows the makings of not just a talented writer but a creative genius as well.  I’m usually not a fan of experimental fiction, preferring to admire it from afar rather than read it myself, but with Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders demonstrates the perfect blend of experiment and pure story- just enough weirdness to keep my attention.


From the back cover:

February.  1862.  With the Civil War less than one year old, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies gravely ill.  In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery.  Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.  From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story that breaks free of its realistic framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm, deploying a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices- living and dead, historical and invented- to ask a timeless question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?


“I am not stable and Mary not stable and the very buildings and monuments here not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable.  All alter, are altering, in every instant.”

-George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


Despite the title, Lincoln in the Bardo focuses not on the Lincolns per say, but rather on the ghosts of the bardo, the state of existence between death and rebirth.  These ghosts, though dead, seem full of life, and their vibrant personalities bring some much-needed comic relief to an otherwise depressing story.  The ghosts are very animated characters, coming to life between the pages.  Lincoln in the Bardo alternates between the script-like dialogue of the bardo ghosts and excerpts from historical documents, some real and some invented by Saunders.  But the best bits are President Lincoln’s grief-stricken trips to the crypt.  These midnight visits, wherein Lincoln seeks to hold to body of his eleven-year-old son, are where Saunders really shines.  The interactions between Abraham and Willie, between father and son, are hauntingly heartbreaking, and I felt pure grief right alongside the Lincolns.  Mix those emotional scenes with the comedic interjections of the bardo ghosts, and Lincoln in the Bardo becomes an inventive masterpiece.


“Strange, isn’t it?  To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors ultimately forgotten?”

-George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


Lincoln in the Bardo is a somber yet comic meditation on death, grief, and fatherhood written by one of the most talented American writers alive today.  It’s definitely not for everyone (and its reviews certainly reflect that), but if you’re willing to try something weirdly different and weirdly good, consider picking up Lincoln in the Bardo.  I’m already looking forward to reading more of Saunders’ work!

Find this book on Goodreads.

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