This award-winning, New York Times bestseller is NOT for everyone. It was George Saunders‘ first full-length novel, published in 2017 and its historical fiction, but definitely experimental in style. Awarded three stars in Goodreads.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO takes place in 1862, the middle of the American Civil War, around the death of 11-year-old William “Willie” Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s son. And, for me, the beautifully written passages featuring these two characters were my favorites–Willie trying to understand the very adult concept that he has lost his life and our former President weighed down by incomprehensible grief in the middle of a national crisis.
But as the title implies, most of the “action” takes place in the bardo, with MANY other characters. The bardo — a Buddhist term referring to the transitional space between death and rebirth — is populated by many deceased people from different time periods, all having conversations, arguing, and exchanging anecdotes about their lives. These sections of the book read much like a play — where one “ghost” says one thing (immediately followed by the identification of who is speaking) and then a second adds detail or opinion and so on. Together, their dialog often tells a single story.
Juxtaposed with these bardo pieced-together stories, are multiple quotes lifted from actual historic documents, describing events from writers of this era. What’s interesting is how much the actual quotes mirror those from the Bardo, in that historical record-keepers are seldom in agreement in describing what happened, just as people seldom agree on what they saw during an event they all witnessed.
This is one of those books that you will either love or dislike (“hate” seems too strong). I am mostly in the middle. I appreciated the book’s novelty. I found a compelling portrait of parental grief. And it was interesting to contemplate what might exist immediately after death. But I found the style kept me at a distance and the conversations among those in the bardo were much less interesting than the story of Willie and his father. And YES, I do recommend everyone give this one a try.
More about the author, George Saunders.