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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Today it is president’s day in the United States and many of us had the day off of work. If you are looking for an appropriate novel to read on this day, I have the perfect book for you: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Published: Feb 2017
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 4.5 stars
Find it here: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo is George Saunders’ first novel and is perhaps one of the most stylistically interesting books I’ve read in a while. It is inspired by true historical events, namely the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, 11 year old Willie. The novel starts a day before Willie dies but the true story starts after his death and is narrated by an eclectic group of ghosts.

The Bardo, a term I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this novel, refers to the Buddhist concept of limbo. It is a bodiless state between incarnations where spirits can become stuck due to guilt, rage, unfinished business, or willingness to move on. In the novel, Willie Lincoln finds himself in the Bardo, tethered by his need to remain close to his father who in his grief spends the night at his son’s gravesite.

The book often reads like a play with much of it occurring as dialogue between ghosts. Interspersed with the dialogue pieces are excerpts from historical documents, biographies, letters. These excerpts shed light on the historical context of the novel and include both real and imagined biographical information. Many of these excerpts explore the ways in which Lincoln’s grieving occurred in the midst of war-torn civil war and how his reflections integrated reflections about slavery, justice, and more.

The bardo is populated by a wide range of ghosts who are don’t quite realize they are dead. Each of them is stuck for different reasons — some waiting for loved ones, some filled with rage and a need for vengeance, and others who are willing to accept what is coming next. The ghosts come together to try and convince Willie Lincoln to leave the Bardo because “these young ones are not meant to tarry” without severe consequences.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful and heart-wrenching novel about death and grieving. Saunders brilliantly weaves in Abraham Lincoln’s grief about his son to historical events. Willie Lincoln was buried on the day that casualty lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were posted and the fictionalized Lincoln contemplates his role in the death of these young men while grieving his son. There are moments that are humorous and made me laugh and there are moments that are heart-breaking but in subtle and complex ways.

In sum, Lincoln in the Bardo is a wonderful book and one that I recommend. The audio is excellent and has a cast of over 150 actors including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Megan Mullally (who is quite brilliant as a vulgar and obscene ghost), Bill Hadar, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Rainn Wilson, Don Cheadle, Susan Sarandon, and many more. I highly recommend reading and listening simultaneously.

Want to try it for yourself? you can find your copy here: Lincoln in the Bardo

We want to hear from you. Have you read this book? What did you think? Does it sound like a book you’d like to read?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nicole R #

    AHHH! I did not really know what this book was actually about before reading your review and now I am even more excited to read it. Your review has convinced me though that I might need to follow along in the text; are the historical excerpts stylistically unique such as letters and such that do not translate great to being narrated?

    Liked by 1 person

    February 20, 2017
    • I tried to do this as audio alone but had a hard time following it given the structure and excerpts. I had to go back to the print version and reread the first few pages and once I figured out which pieces were dialogue and which were excerpts of historical biographies, then I was able to follow the audio. I think the excerpts worked well in audio but the first few chapters were hard to for me to follow
      Without the print in front of me

      Liked by 1 person

      February 20, 2017
    • Tracy S #

      I agree with Jen- I got a little confused at first, and having the book really helped. But the audio was a real experience- so well done! This is one I intend to read again.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 20, 2017
    • Anita #

      I’m no expert on audio books, but I think if you at least look at the format before you listen, it will be very helpful. Once you understand how the book is structured, I can completely see how the audio would be very enjoyable. In the meantime, here’s an interesting way to present an excerpt . . .


      February 21, 2017
      • That’s interesting, thank you for sharing!


        February 23, 2017
  2. Anita #

    I read this one, and it was five stars for me. The original format really worked for me. The book has important statements about both history and humanity. Statements with emotional impact. For me, the format enhanced the story by trimming out the extraneous while also building suspense. All in all, this book took huge risks. As a reader, I thought they paid off.


    February 21, 2017

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  1. 2017 Man Booker longlist: Lincoln in the Bardo | The Reader's Room

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