My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lincoln in the Bardo is a good book — but you have to be ready for it. George Saunders has taken a novel and made it just that, novel. It’s part poem, part history text and entirely complicated and moving at the same time. Readers need to prepared for the odd writing style, the numerous characters, and the constantly changing voices. However, if given the chance, the book is phenomenal.
Let’s talk premise first: Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the course of one heart-wrenching night following the burial of William Wallace Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s third, and favorite, son. Willie died suddenly of typhoid fever just as the Civil War is ramping up in the United States. The story takes place “in the Bardo” which is a Buddhist term for the space between life and death, essentially the purgatory of the Christian world. Over the course of the night, many spirits appear to help young Willie on his new venture into the afterlife and we hear how each ghost ended up in their current state, some are luckier than others. In between conversations in the cemetery, Saunders intersperses actual bits of history from contemporary sources who recount the events leading up to Willie’s death. The overall narrative is alternatively emotional and humorous.
Here’s where things get tricky. The form. This isn’t your typical novel written with sentences that build paragraphs that turn into a book. Rather, it reads more like a screenplay with the character announced in italics followed by their lines in the next below. Historical sources are cited appropriately often reading as follows:
“The rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sick-room in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far off spirits.” Keckley, op. cit.
It’s a very avant-garde style of writing that makes the book difficult to follow. I found myself wondering “who’s that guy again?” or “wait — how did he die?” Towards the end of the book things start to get a little bit muddled as the narrative veers into the reflective and meditative and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that.
Overall, the book was worth the confusion because it made me think and it threw me out of my comfort zone. I can’t recommend this book enough (with the disclaimer that it’s really not going to be everyone’s cup of tea).