Review: Lincoln In The Bardo

Rating 4.5 / 5

349 pages

Random House; Reprint edition, 2017

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

It’s immediate apparent why this is novel has recieved many awards and accolades, the prestigious Man Booker Prize among them.

Lincoln in the Bardo is more than just a fantastical gothic story featuring all types of supernatural entities set in the backdrop of the American Civil War. It’s about the intimate stages a person goes through while grieving their loved ones, and there’s probably no sharper pain than that of a parent mourning the death of their young child.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Bardo is a physical place when first glancing at the title. It’s a word used by Tibetan Buddhists to mean an “intermediate state” or “transitional state” where they believe that upon death, they will either ascend to nirvana or after a series of trials be reborn on earth to begin their life and death cycles again until they reach that final sacred place.

This concept is skillfully brought to life through George Saunders’ words, as we join Abraham and Willie as they attempt to reconcile their dual loss even as Willie’s new spirit friends, Hans Vollman, a printer who died on his wedding night, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, fight to save the young man’s soul from corruption.

You see, young souls aren’t meant to hang around like their elder counterparts, who may develop unexpected yet seemingly benign side-effects from remaining in the cemetery, such as Roger Bevins III’s multiple arms. Any child who refuses to move on risks being transformed into a devilish spirit, dooming their souls for eternity.

As the characters race to save Willie in their own way, including possessing his father, Saunders fills each line with magnificent descriptions that compel you to turn each page breathlessly as you race to see how everything will turn out in the end.

Another interesting reaction we felt throughout the story was our version of the grieving process. Since the pandemic hit, all of our lives have been switched upside down and many of us lost loved ones in the process. It felt cathartic to mourn with Abraham and feel the concern, friendship, and support of Hans, Roger, and Everly as we collectively – fictional characters and otherwise – came together as this story unfolded.

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