In the span of just a few days, George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo was recommended to me by three different friends, all of whom have very distinct reading tastes. Knowing a worthy book recommendation when I see one, I immediately knew that this novel had to go straight to the top of my reading list for the summer. It’s difficult to explain what this book is about, so I’ve included the Goodreads synopsis for clarification:
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 returned to the crypt several times alone 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 thrilling, 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 no exaggeration to say that this is one of the strangest novels I have ever read. Even calling it a novel feels a bit odd–it’s almost more like some sort of textual collage, a conglomeration of quotes that somehow comes together to form a whole. Though Lincoln in the Bardo may be bizarre, it’s also brilliant. In the spirit of Saunders’s mosaic of a novel, here’s a list of reasons why I loved it:
- It’s unique–I have truly never read anything like it.
- The blend of historical quotes and fictional pieces that Saunders writes to look like actual quotes from real people. This fiction/fact mix mirrors the more fantastical elements of the story itself.
- Plays with the stereotypical image that many of us have of Abraham Lincoln by revealing a plethora of possible sides to his personality.
- Fast-paced due to the constant changing perspectives and the wide variety of voices. Never feels like the story is dragging or moving too slowly.
- Beautiful, lyrical writing. All of the characters have really distinct voices and Saunders’s writing style clearly portrays their different personalities and backgrounds.
- So. Many. Emotions. You can’t help but feel for poor Lincoln, Willie, and all of the souls wondering where they went wrong in life.
- Not a conventional “ghost” story, not a conventional historical fiction novel, not a conventional novel– I love how this book breaks all necessity to adhere to any sort of convention at all.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop my list there for now. Needless to say, I highly recommend Lincoln in the Bardo no matter what genre of books you tend to read. And thanks to all those who recommended it to me–you were so, so right!
What are your thoughts on Lincoln in the Bardo? Would you recommend any of Saunders’ other work? Let me know in the comments section below!