Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Setting: February 1862, a graveyard in Washington, D.C.
My Copy Came From: I purchased this book from my local bookstore, Copperfield’s Books.
*** this post contains affiliate links ***
Review: Thought provoking, different, and interesting. Worth a read if you like to read more serious, literary fiction type stories.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders took awhile for me to figure out. I had purchased this book because it seemed that everyone was talking about it, and it recently won the Man Booker Prize. When I first opened the book and started reading I was surprised to see the format, which is similar to a play but without any stage directions. The format does take some getting used to, as you don’t quite know who is speaking until after they have spoken (ie, the name of the person speaking is written below their speech). For example:
The boy’s gaze moved past us.
He seemed to catch sight of something beyond.
roger bevins iii
His face lit up with joy.
Father, he said.
the reverend everly thomas
Now, this is fairly simple to figure out when reading lots of short little lines like indicated above. But when there are sections narrated by a single character that are pages long, it gets a bit confusing, and as the book begins with big sections narrated by one person, it did help me to look to see who was narrating before reading their section until I got a better feel for the characters. I was utterly confused right at the start, as I incorrectly had figured that Abraham Lincoln would narrate the story. Lincoln never narrates here (you do see occasionally into his mind by way of the various ghosts), but rather the story is told by many different ghosts, or spirits, that are lingering in the graveyard where Lincoln’s son, Willie, is buried. The term “the bardo” is never explained in the book, so it is helpful to read the synopsis before starting the book.
Strange that the gentleman had come here in the first place; stranger still that he lingered.
the reverend everly thomas
Besides the odd narration style, intermixed between these chapters are sections of real-life quotes. Quotes about Willie’s death, about Lincoln’s wife, Mary, and her reaction to Willie’s death, about the people’s thoughts on the Civil War, and various other historical items about Lincoln and the time. I was super confused about these sections at first, but as the book went on I found myself enjoying these sections a lot, as they ground the story in the historical significance of the Civil War and the legacy of Lincoln.
Lincoln goes to the graveyard to visit his newly deceased son, Willie, and the ghosts come out and talk about their lives, and try to get Willie to, well, I’m still not sure. Are they trying to get Willie to move on? Do the ghosts themselves even want to move on? Do they even know that they are dead? It’s an interesting premise, and one that I’m still pondering and thinking about.
There are three main ghosts that narrate the book: hans vollman, roger bevins iii, and the reverend everly thomas. Note the no capitalization of the names, which is the way the author has styled each of the ghosts. You get to know these three ghosts rather well. You hear their stories of what their life was like, what their afterlife has been like so far, and see into their minds. They are sometimes funny, many times dirty (I can only read so much about “swollen members”. Ew.), and they ramble on and on and on sometimes.
I was about halfway through and wondering where on earth this book was going and why was it so revered, when the narrative started shifting, and all of a sudden I found myself engrossed with the characters and the story, and feeling the weight of it all, as Lincoln grapples with the realization that he is dooming many families to the same fate he is suffering from at that moment. Burying a son.
We are here.
A train approaches a wall at a fatal rate of speed. You hold a switch in your hand, that accomplishes you know not what: do you throw it? Disaster is otherwise assured.
It costs you nothing.
Why not try?
As Lincoln debates the justification of the war and the death toll, the ghosts themselves shift into having more serious storylines, as more ghosts appear and as slavery and rape come more to the forefront of the focus of the book. There is one ghost, named litzie wright, who is only mentioned in just a few pages, but her story was so powerful and heart wrenching, that I’ll never forget her.
Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.
roger bevins iii
This is not a book for every reader. There’s sex and language and gross images. But there’s a powerful story here. One that made me think and contemplate life. Did I like it? I don’t think I can “like” this. It’s too strong, too polarizing, and too off-the-wall in its approach, too in-your-face grieving. But I can certainly appreciate it and recognize the uniqueness of the plot and the way it was told. I’ll probably keep my copy to re-read in ten years or so and see if I have the same response the next time around.
Bottom Line: A difficult read that is ultimately rewarding and thought provoking.