Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the bardo

“whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact” ~George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

My Rating: 5/5 – If you have an open mind you HAVE to read this book; life changing

Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

Author: George Saunders

Synopsis, via Goodreads: The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

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.

My Review:

First of all, you should know this is NOT my typical read.  While I probably would have read some reviews and felt intrigued by the premise of this story, it probably would have landed somewhere on my to-read list, read at a much later date when I found a copy on sale somewhere or had it handed to me by a friend.  I read it right away because my Dad asked me if I would be interested in reading this with him – my Dad NEVER reads fiction and has never committed to reading anything with me, so naturally I said yes right away, my sister read it at the same time too!

Warning: This book is about death – its right there in the synopsis – it is definitely heavy and sad at times, but any book about death is about life too; it gave me all the feels.  Also, this book is weird – it is unlike any other I’ve read, in a good way.

What I liked:

  • That this book was so different than what I usually read.  The format splits between what reads like a script, introducing a wide array of ghosts (for lack of a better word – spirits?) and then chapters of actual citations from historical accounts of the time and events surrounding Lincoln during this point in history (some are entertainingly contradicting) and some made up historical accounts and citations as well.  The book is written in mostly quotes or dialogue from these ghosts (spirits?) and for that reason they speak in nonlinear comments and stories with many, MANY words that I had to look up (well, let’s be honest – ask Siri to look up) because I had never heard or seen them before.
  • This was a quick read.  As I mentioned, this is written like a script, the dialogue bounces from one character to another and for that reason the pages are plenty but the word count is likely much less than a similar book of the same page count.  This made the hard tounderstand characters and heavy subject of the book easier to deal with.
  • How this book made me feel; it stuck with me, it changed me, like all good books do.  Saunders did an amazing job of combining just the right amount of history and humor into this overwhelmingly sad and heavy book about every parent’s worst nightmare.  As a parent myself I could feel my heart aching at times for the very well-written and sympathetic Lincoln.  No, I didn’t cry – but I very, very rarely ever cry so that is not a bar I set for the books I read.
  • That I still have the audiobook to look forward to!  Never have I ever read a book and listened to the audio version as well, but can we just take a moment and appreciate the wonder that is this audiobook cast y’all?  For this reason I think the audiobook will fall under my “read the book before the movie rule” and I can now allow myself to listen to it all over again, because let’s be honest – if that’s not a movie for your ears, I don’t know what is!

What I didn’t like:

  • Remember how I said that the book reads like a script? Well, most scripts put the character who is speaking in front of their “lines”.  In Lincoln Saunders adds the dialogue or thoughts of a character and then adds their name below the quote or story.  I’m sure this was a conscious decision on the part of the author for reasons beyond my understanding, but it drove me crazy!  It messed with the flow of the book for me because I found myself constantly skimming or flipping past a section to see who the narrator was (of which there are many) and then going back to read the passage.
  • So many, many characters.  Yes, the sheer amount of characters definitely colors the book quite a bit, but I definitely lost track of some of the backstories and names after a while.
  • The words and phrases I didn’t know.  Again, maybe it is just evidence of my lack of culture, but I had to look up many, many words and phrases while I was reading this book.  I enjoyed learning new things and finding a way to still follow along, but it messed with the flow for me.
  • This was not a light read.  For reasons previously mentioned this was a book that I had to be in the right mood and setting to read, this was not a kids-in-the-back-seat-singing-while-on-a-sun-shiny-road-trip book – I know, I tried, and I wanted it to be.

Conclusion:

I give this book 5/5 stars.  I loved how this book stuck with me and how as soon as I put it down I was texting my sister making plans to listen to the audiobook.  The characters, while some were actual historical figures, were well written and surprising.  This book was a reflection on the meaning of life, told via grotesque horror-comedy.  This book made my heart ache and my brain think and I’m really not sure what else you can ask for out of a book.  This book changed me.  In my day to day life I usually can’t stop telling people to read a book after I finish it and feel this way about it, but I am picking and choosing who I recommend this to because I am just not sure everyone likes a dark horror comedy and is open minded enough to just sit down, read it, and let it affect them.  If you think you are, or can be, then I highly recommend this book.  Trust me, this review is not doing it justice.

Also, since I said my sister and my dad were reading this with me: My sister finished this before me and loved it as well.  She is also planning to listen to the audiobook and is currently torn between keeping this one for a re-read, or many re-reads, and giving to someone else to enjoy.  My dad is still currently reading it.

Extras:

  • Um, hello! Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally already bought the movie rights to this book.  I can’t hardly wait!
  • George Saunders cites the play Our Town as one of his influences in writing this book – I read this after I finished the book, but I can totally see it.
  • George Saunders has commented on the fact that he had internal conflict over the historical citations he added in to the book because “this isn’t writing!”
  • The bardo is something other than death; it is an intermediate state. In Buddhist cosmology, it is most commonly understood as the period of transmigration, between death and new life, when the consciousness is waiting on the platform for the proverbial next train.

If this book were a movie:

A little game I like to play with myself almost every time I read a book: Well on this one I already have that fantastic audiobook cast in my head, so the cast is a bust for my imagination, but I picture this movie being a mix between a Tim Burton and Bahz Luhrman film.  Think: a cross between Beetlejuice/Edward Scissorhands  and Moulin Rouge… strange, weird but fantastic and something you just can’t turn away from.

Related Books:

Like I said, this book is unlike any other I’ve read, so it is hard to put together a list of books you’d probably like if you like this book; really probably any great American Fiction piece- but I think these would be a start:

  1. Fans of Saunders might like (or more likely have already read) Neil Gaiman: American Gods is a good start.
  2. Again, great contemporary fiction – Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: a retelling of The Tempest
  3. More George Saunders seems like an obvious choice: The Tenth of December
  4. World’s End, by TC Boyle – because, satirical historical fiction
  5. Couldn’t help myself, more Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

Favorite Quotes:

Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing

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

(So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do. Free

Have you read this book?  What did you think?  Any comments on the review or anything else you’d like to see included on the next one?  Please take a moment to comment below, all comments will be read and received. 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

  1. Heather

    I just listened to the entire audiobook during an 8-hour drive over the weekend. I had the same reaction! This is weird but it’s good. The play-like portions worked so well in audio form, but the historical citations were hard to follow (the narrator read the cite at the end of every blurb, which was jarring). I also have the paper copy waiting at the library and was considering reading it as well to round out the experience.

    As I listened, I just kept thinking “this could never be a movie,” but you’ve made me reconsider!

    Like

    Reply
    1. Carolyn Sutton Post author

      Thanks for visiting the blog! My sister said the same thing about the movie, but I can see it so clearly in my head if the right imaginative, creative and witty person took it and ran with it.

      Like

      Reply

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