Lincoln in the Bardo: A Review

What I’d give it: 3.5/5
Summary: Satire is not my usual genre, and I’ve only dabbled in avant garde lit. But I could enjoy the story at face value.

George Saunders’s story begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie. The novel vacillates between the ‘real world’ and the ‘afterlife’—this afterlife being the ‘Bardo’ referenced in the title. (A Bardo is a Tibetan name for the place between lives, where souls remain before rebirth.)

Saunders’s Bardo has a humorous cast of characters whose stagnant reality is ruptured when Willie enters their realm. They witness Abraham going into his son’s tomb and pulling the lifeless little body out of the coffin.

Actual historical references have mentioned Lincoln’s struggle to part with his son. It’s noted he would often spend time with the body. However, the actual corpse handling is debated (as a handful of Google searches has told me).

But this novel depicts a facet of what could have happened had Lincoln opened the ‘sick-box’ and said farewell to his son’s body one final time. With some satire stuffed in between.

Cause, ya know, don’t want to be a downer. It works like milk after eating a hot pepper.

I will say, the amount of characters—and the exposition—feels a little much. Some voices have a few lines of dialogue and are never seen again. A friend in my writing group believes every sentence should be moving the plot forward, every word should have a purpose in your story (and I agree). I wondered if some of the aforementioned, seemingly unimportant, characters couldn’t have been cut.

Nevertheless, here are my takeaways from Lincoln in the Bardo:

  • I found myself laughing aloud while reading
  • The chapters are short. And the novel reads similarly to a screenplay, so I felt like I was flying through it (and that’s a plus for us slow readers)
  • The story touches on the Civil War, but it’s a background event; the main themes circulate around humanity, and life’s regrets and sorrows—a topic that I found fascinating to read from Saunders’s perspective

And here’s my favorite quote:
Saunders, close to the novel’s close, describes The President as he copes with the loss of his child:
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that 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; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”