Published by Random House on February 14th 2017
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War
On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.
Oh my goodness, you guys. Saunders has completely blown me away with Lincoln in the Bardo. I described it repeatedly to an illiterate co-worker (love you B!) as The Sound and the Fury with ghosts. Saunders creates a beautifully atmospheric novel without sacrificing character development – though – it doesn’t happen the way you’d expect.
This novel is incredibly, well, novel. Saunders creates a world where we are able to see the main players reflected through the eyes of the dead who are obsessed with petty (and not so petty) wrongs that happened to them in life. Thus, they are stuck in ‘the bardo’. When Willie Lincoln dies, we get to see the confusion of a dead child along with the reflections of his father’s grief. What’s so interesting about the form of Lincoln in the Bardo, is that it’s written more like a Greek chorus, with other ‘characters’ explaining the action – rather than us seeing the action.
There are intermittent background chapters that appear to be excerpts from memoirs or history books about what is happening in the world outside the graveyard. Explaining the pressure of the Civil War on President Lincoln, the party that happened prior to Willie’s death, and other general historical snippets to give the rest of the novel context.
The concept of the bardo is fascinating enough it ran me down a brief wormhole of Tibetan death rituals and the such. I may have some future reading about that.
Overall, this is an excellent novel by an author who I believe will be considered one of the great authors of our lifetimes. It has a fresh form, an interesting story, atmosphere, and just generally fantastic writing. This is a book that literary fiction lovers absolutely must check out.
Does this sound too weird for you, Reader? Too hard? It’s definitely not a beach read, but it’s hard reading that I think is totally worth it.