Contemporary Literature · Historical Fiction · Magical Realism

Lincoln in the Bardo

I’d seen quite a few positive reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo floating around, had heard that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and, honestly, still wasn’t that sure about it. I have never been particularly enamored of American history, even less so of the period of the Civil War. (Note: I totally understand it’s horror, importance, and role in the formation of the US and what we are today. I do not mean to impugn any of that. It’s just that, when I choose books to read for my own fun and entertainment, ones from this period are not usually at the top of the list.) So, to be honest, when I saw this book on an endcap at my local library, I am not sure what made me pick it up. Maybe just my general need to be “up to speed” on what will clearly be a modern classic or perhaps seeing it all around finally wore me down… But whatever compelled me to grab it – thank you. This was an absolutely captivating read. Plus, it turns out it was the right Man Booker shortlisted book to read at the last minute before the announcement, because it won!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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“We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.”

Told over the period of one night (I mean let’s start there – how amazing to be able to write this much feeling and action into a single evening), Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of the death of President Lincoln’s son Willie, right as the Civil War is truly beginning. After the funeral, Lincoln returns to the cemetery to spend the night, one last night, with his son, in the crypt where he was laid to rest. And I think every single major literary theme is packed into this novel and that night – family, grief, expectations, the greater good, acceptance, possibility for the future (just to name a few) – it’s almost unreal in its ambition.

Although I know it may not be for everyone, I loved the style. Parts of the story were told in snippets from various historical documents (letters, memoirs, commentaries, and other publications and written records), that tell the “facts” of the story. These cover everything from opinions about the war to Lincoln’s parenting style and physical features to the weather on the day Willie died and where fault lay for Willie’s death. I loved that, like any good “primary” sources, these accounts were all completely contradictory, which was both humorous to read and a great commentary on the nature and accuracy of historical (and current day) documents and people’s memories. And other parts of the story were told in [quickly] alternating points of view from the many ghosts that Willie meets while in bardo (which is not a word I had ever heard before, but refers to a state of being between two lives on earth, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body – you learn something new every day). These snippets of narration are incredibly short and choppy, jumping around between three main narrators and a host of more short-term voices.

Again, I can see this not being everyone’s cup of tea. The constant changes of narrator and lack of detailed exposition at the beginning require a lot of effort on the part of the reader and are not for the faint of heart. This formatting is not necessarily new, but Saunders executes it in a way that feels original and unique. And the short passages pull you along compulsively, making the story move quickly, in a way you don’t normally see when such intense themes are explored. Within this, the short, staccato way everything is described, from Lincoln himself to the snapshots of daily life, are surprisingly emotive for their brevity. Saunders gives the barest details, sometimes nothing more than a few words (“leather, soap, rug-tuft, cold water”) and allows your imagination to fill in the necessary extra details. I don’t know how, but it works amazingly here; it’s fascinating. In fact, overall, the feelings of grief and loss from Lincoln, the longing and pain of the ghosts, are some of the most tender and touching I’ve ever read – as a reader I truly felt along with the characters (living and ghostly alike). And at the same time, he manages to infuse some surprisingly humorous details into the delivery that add a much needed lighter, but never flippantly so, pitch.

The way that the various points of view allowed Saunders to deftly include an open-ended number of experiences, opinions, and lifestyles of the time period was key to the story. We heard from people from many different social, racial, economic and age backgrounds – with varied, informative, and super colorful voices. But their common ground was sorrow: a lack of fulfillment in life, a tragedy, a leftover anger or longing or fear. Each of the ghosts we meet is stuck in this bardo state, unable to move one. This is something that one usually only thinks about in terms of the living, the inability to move past an experienced tragedy. But it is less often explored, and definitely rarely explored this impeccably, from the point of view of the dead. These “dead,” who are holding onto their grudges and failures and worries, are so unfulfilled that they have spent unimaginable numbers of years unable to let go of their lives in the ‘previous place’ and take the next step in their journey. Throughout all these little histories that we get, fascinating questions about human nature are addressed, how the way we are born versus the events we live through affect our actions, other explanations for why we act the way we do and what choice/power we have to change that – it was all covered. Plus, the final questions, the ones we see through Willie’s decision on whether to stay or “move on” and Lincoln’s final acceptance of Willie’s passing, as commentary on the true beginnings of change in the racial-social status of the US (the questions that began to be addressed, in large scale, by the Civil War) are quite timely.

All in all, I can absolutely see why this was shortlisted for, and has now won, the Man Booker Prize this year. And though I’ve only read one other of the 6 finalists (Exit West), for now at least, I’m glad I wasn’t on the committee choosing a final winner. That must have been an impossible task. Truly, this book is a haunting exploration of some heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful, themes. It’s told in an incredibly distinctive way, through a chorus of unique voices, that will rouse your compassion and spirit. Congratulations to Saunders on this magnificent novel.


Some of my favorite quotes/passages:

“With all the splendor that was around this little fellow in his new home, he was so bravely and beautifully himself – and that only. A wild flower transplanted from the prairie to the hot-house, he retained his prairie habits, unalterably pure and simple, till he died.”

“No one who has ever done anything worth doing has gone uncriticized.”

“He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.”

“He was leaving here broken, awed, humbled, diminished.” “Reduced, ruined, remade.” “Merciful, patient, dazzled.”

“Was proceeding with a fury that suggested the two might well fight into eternity… Unless some fundamental and unimaginable alteration of reality should occur.”

“The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars; the sore place on the shoulder a resting toboggan makes; writing one’s beloved’s name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger.”

3 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo

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