Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (♦♦♦♦)

Blurb taken from Barnes and Noble:

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, 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 of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is an unconventional novel, both in topic and structure. Interspersed with the chapters that describe the spiritual journey of young Willie Lincoln in the graveyard, are chapters sprinkled with historical sources about: 1) the official reception the Lincolns had at the White House while young Willie lay sick in bed; 2) the opinion some of his contemporaries had on President Lincoln’s character and management of the war effort; 3) the first big battle of the Civil War in which the casualties amounted to more than a thousand; and 4) accounts on young Willie’s character and personality.

The chapters in the graveyard are structured more or less like a theatrical production, or an endless conversation primarily among three main characters—those that protect Willie’s soul and try to convince him to move on—through which Willie’s soul’s journey in the graveyard emerges. The rest of the inhabitants of the graveyard tell their stories too, giving a glimpse of contemporary living through all walks of life.

As I said before, Lincoln in the Bardo is an unconventional novel, but don’t let that be off-putting. I found it endearing and I chuckled on occasions despite the somber topic. I also learned a bit about President Lincoln through the historical sources. My only complaint is that I wish it had been a tad shorter, particularly towards the end.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Comments

  1. I've been waffling over this one - it doesn't sound at all like something I'd enjoy. The whole graveyard thing is not my cup of tea, but so many people have awaited it for so long and are now raving about it. Hmm...

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    1. I was very excited about this title before reading it, and once finished I can say that it met my expectations. It isn't mushy, but it is not sad either; you may find yourself laughing or chuckling at times, like I did. It is more about the soul's journey than about death itself. My only criticism was that I found it long towards the end.

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  2. You are the first of my reader friends to have read and reviewed this book. I wasn't that excited about it but your review changed my mind!

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    1. I hope that you like it if you get to read it.

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  3. I'm glad you already have gotten to this novel! I was wondering about it and I do plan to read it. Your review gave me some hints of what it will be like. It sounds quite different and unconventional but maybe fun too?

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    1. I enjoyed some passages and laughed out loud on occasions, but it is dark humor in case you are wondering, as it pertains to the dead. Some people may enjoy it more than others, but overall I found it a very satisfying read, with the added bonus that now I want to read more about President Lincoln.

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  4. I've had my eye on this one for a few months, but I'm still not sure if it's something I would enjoy. I have a audiobook, so I may give it a listen sometime, but the synopsis doesn't captivate me enough to prioritize it.

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    1. Unlike me who was eager to read it since the publisher approved my ARC. I'm not sure how this book would translate to audiobook because there are many voices in the story, as many as there are people interred in a graveyard, thus, either there are multiple narrators, or the narrator has to do a superb job to keep things interesting.

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    2. Update: I received a review copy of the audiobook. I haven't listened to it yet, but I read that it's narrated by an all-star cast of 166 actors. I'm actually starting to get pretty excited about it.

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    3. Let me know how it goes. I had the feeling that it couldn't be narrated but just one person, but 166 (!) Wow.

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  5. Wonderful review! (I'm not sure how I missed it for almost a week.) I've read and heard so much good about this book that I think I really have to read it. I read Saunders' Tenth of December which also received almost universal praise and I found it spotty. Some stories I really liked and some just didn't appeal to me. I'm not a big fan of the short story so that may have been part of my problem. I understand this is his first novel so it should be a very interesting read from that perspective. Plus the undeniable fact that he really is an excellent writer.

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    1. Thanks, Dorothy! As I read, I kept thinking that you might like this book. Thanks for telling me about Tenth of December. It has been suggested to me in the Amazon carousel and I thought that since I liked Lincoln... I might like that one too, but now I'm not sure. I like short stories, but I haven't read a book with some in years.

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  6. This is the second excellent book review I read about this book. This does sound like something I'd enjoy reading. This is definitely my cup of tea, to read in the near future.

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