Lincoln in the Bardo

Written by George Saunders
Review by Jeanne Greene

Saunders’ first novel is surreal, with a meandering plot and 100+ garrulous characters who are invisible, at least to us. The death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln in 1862, followed by the inconsolable President’s visits to the crypt, prompt vigorous discussions which, combined with excerpts from (real and fabricated) 19th-century sources, comprise the book. These discussions, which touch on the costs of war, the onus of decision-making, regrets, fears, and empathy, among other things, take place in the Bardo. A waystation between death and whatever lies after, the Bardo is inhabited by the recently deceased, like Willie, and countless souls who linger there before facing the great unknown.

The Bardo can be dangerous. Willie is warned but, expecting a visit from his father, the child refuses to budge. The souls of men and women with nothing in common but death and knowledge of the Bardo unite to manage Willie and his father—from within—and impel the child to leave. Thus are Lincoln’s innermost thoughts revealed, even his heartbreaking admission that, in the second year of war, he is not “well thought of, or succeeding in much of anything.” The intense struggle over father and son has many and unforeseen results, inside and outside of the Bardo, and a dénouement that is, amazingly, satisfactory.

Painful, raw, and occasionally humorous, Lincoln in the Bardo is an experience rather than a story. Like all good history, it is cautionary as well as informative but never dull, and deserves to be read more than once. You may also want to read the short stories (e.g., Tenth of December, 2013) for which Saunders is well known.