Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


LincolnInTheBardoCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other—for no one but Saunders could conceive it.

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. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone 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 thrilling, 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 is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

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.
hans vollman

He seemed to catch sight of something beyond.
roger bevins iii

His face lit up with joy.
hans vollman

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.
Already 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?

hans vollman

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.

LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***



Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Do you plan on reading this book someday?


9 thoughts on “Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

  1. I had it as an audio book and returned it after about three hours of listening. It was too convoluted and difficult to follow– and I couldn’t figure out the purpose for any of it. Maybe I’ll pick up a hard copy in the library and start in the middle. I couldn’t recommend this one, though. It shouldn’t take half a text to find direction. It needed serious editing, Booker prize notwithstanding,

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think this book would be exceedingly difficult to listen to as an audiobook! Were there different narrators for each voice or did they say who was speaking? I honestly can’t imagine listening to this without some visual to accompany it. I think it would work well as a play, and it’s certainly different to read! It took me quite awhile to figure out who was who and who was speaking. If you were to attempt it again I’d definitely recommend the library over purchasing it. I was about to give up on it before everything started clicking and having that extra weight to it.


  2. I’ve read and studied a lot of experimental literature. A LOT. I can’t think of a reason for the formatting of the text to be so poor. It would make more sense to me to pick a spot on the page for each of the ghosts and put all their text over there, almost like the ghosts are floating on the page!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now that would be very interesting! I was totally unaware of the different style until I started reading the book. It was so confusing at first! But once I figured out what was going on, it got better. I haven’t really read anything else that could be considered experimental I don’t think.


        1. I’ll have to check that one out sometime! I think I have to be in the right mood for experimental. I think the popular YA books Illuminae and Gemina might count as experimental, too. ? The story is told through video surveillance, dossiers, text messages, emails, art, and just odd layout of text. Sometimes it required a bit too much concentration on the way it was told, so it overshadowed the story a bit.


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