Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo
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Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders

The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War.

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm - called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo - and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul. Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders' inimitable humour, pathos and grace.

Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices - living and dead, historical and fictional - Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Review

Since the publication of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in 1996, George Saunders has produced an incredible body of work, the majority of which are short stories, though there’s also a novella, a children’s book, and a collection of reportage essays. These diverse offerings are linked by the bleak, humorous, dystopian vision of middle-America at which Saunders excels.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t been hanging out for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo. The story is set over one night in 1862, immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has died and been laid to rest. The Civil War is at its worst and the president has left the grounds of his house in the middle of the night when, unbeknownst to him, he stumbles into a graveyard surrounded by ghosts.

Lincoln In the Bardo is comprises a series of sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the night. These spirits rally together to help Willie leave the terrible limbo that they’re all trapped in.

As always, Saunders’s skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of real life. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – one is covered in eyes, three spirit-bachelors sweep down through the skies trailing hats, when someone talks their head elongates and flattens like a deflating balloon – what ultimately emerges is a portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Lincoln In the Bardo is a real achievement of a novel, and a real delight.


Chris Somerville works for the online team at Readings.

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