Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna

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Anna

Anna. Melbourne. Bookseller. Student. Serial tsundokist.

5 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders”

  1. I know a lot of people say that a writer isn’t really a capital-A author until he/she writes a novel. That’s definitely the vibe now that so many short story collections are coming out of MFA programs, which cause a debate themselves (are we making writer “factories” and churning out the same boring crap?). I wonder if Saunders started this book by writing short stories of each ghost and then weaving it all together. Chuck Palahniuk used such a strategy with his “novel” Haunted.

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    1. Yeah, I know what you mean and I think that people often consider short stories to be ‘lesser’ works than novels, which I really disagree with. That said, I think that even before writing Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders established himself as a capital-A author. His praises are sung pretty universally and a lot of people, including myself, were actually quite skeptical about him writing a novel as his short story collections are so strong.

      On another note, I would really love to learn more about his writing process for this novel. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did in fact write several different short stories and weave them together as you suggested. Will do a little bit of sleuthing and try and figure it out. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I really hope you like it as much as I did! Please let me know what you think of it once you’ve finished it. It is certainly unlike anything I’ve read before, but in a good way. It just requires an open mind! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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