Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: A review

This one has been on my "to be read" list for months. I kept skipping over it thinking the time wasn't right or I wasn't in the mood for it. Then, last week it was announced as the Man Booker Prize winner for 2017. The time was not going to get any more right; time to read.

I had read countless professional reviews of the book and they were all raves. Moreover, the reviews on Goodreads, which normally represent a diversity of opinion, were almost universally five-star. I was intimidated before I even opened the cover, thinking that I had to love the book - or else!

Then I read it and I didn't love it. 

I didn't hate it. It's difficult to put into words my reaction to the book. It is undeniably a creative and poetic telling of a tragic story. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the scenes of Abraham Lincoln with the weight of a country at war on his shoulders grieving over his recently deceased greatly loved 11-year-old son, Willie. But the manner in which the story is told, while innovative, seemed often tedious and pretentious to me, as if the writer were saying, "Look at how clever I am to have imagined this!" 

I guess what I'm saying is that I prefer my storytellers to be a bit less...obtrusive.

So, first things first: What is the bardo? Maybe Saunders' usual audience is familiar with the term, but I wasn't, so I looked it up and found that, in Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is a "state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death."

Saunders reports the events leading to the death of Willie from typhoid in February 1862 using facts and excerpts from contemporary news accounts, statements, and books, as well as some fictionalized accounts. The effect is somewhat like a collage of randomly pieced together narratives.

Willie's body is embalmed and laid to rest in a crypt in Georgetown. Lincoln returns to the crypt on two occasions to remove the body from its casket and cradle it on his lap while weeping and whispering to it. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. 

Meanwhile, Willie is in that "state of existence between death and rebirth," not accepting that he is dead, unable to move on. And there is a supporting cast of seemingly hundreds of ghosts in the same state who wander in from all over the cemetery. They observe the grieving and the confused little boy and try to help in their own slightly comical and sometimes menacing way. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus describing Lincoln's visits and interspersing tales of their own lives and misadventures.

Yes, a very creative telling, but after a while that numberless and cacophonous ghostly chorus lost its charm and only seemed tiresome and monotonous to me.

The best parts of the novel for me were when the focus was on Lincoln and his grief. More than just a president, he seemed a stand-in for Everyman - and Everywoman - who has had his/her dreams and hopes shattered by circumstances and who has been left feeling betrayed by fate, alone and isolated. But then that motley crew of ghosts would come storming back onto the scene and my irritation would mount.

Bottom line: My assessment is that this is a challenging read and I can understand why critics loved it and why the jury for the Booker prize selected it. But for me, reading is about enjoyment and my enjoyment of the work was less than optimum, so I can't join in the majority opinion.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    


  1. I liked it very much, though I thought it could have been tighter edited. Maybe your expectations got the best of you since the book had won a prestigious award and it was mostly universally loved. I read it when hardly anyone had heard of it, in early February. But I agree with you on one thing: the best parts were the ones involving Lincoln. I liked the historical composites very much.

    1. My expectations were very high and you could be quite right that that was the reason I was a little disappointed. It could also be that I'm just not smart enough to "get it". Thinking about the book after I wrote my review, I've come to the conclusion that I might have been a bit too negative. I think it is growing on me. Maybe it just required reflection.

    2. Of course you are smart enough to get it; you just researched the book too much before hand. I usually try not to know much before I tackle a book, not much more than what it is about, but then again, I haven't read many books that win awards.

    3. And you are right, it was a different format to the conventional novel, so that could have influenced your perception of it.

  2. Dorothy, I've been thinking of trying to read that book - winning the Man Booker prize would have been a "plus". But I don't have the "bandwidth" (an expression of an inlaw which I've adopted as my own) to tackle a book like that. Yet, I might just get it out of the library and skip around in it. I know that kind of reading behavior is considered heresy by many, but I don't hesitate to do that - and sometimes, it causes me to get interested enough in the book to start reading it from the beginning. (Plus, I do have my interest in Lincoln's life....)

    1. It certainly is not an effortless read, but, yes, I think it might interest you because of the Lincoln connection. As for skipping around in a book, I am completely non-judgmental. Whatever works for you is good!

  3. Hm. Just what I was afraid of. I think I will put it off for a while more. You made an intrepid effort!

    1. Don't let me put you off it. You are an adventurous reader and it might be just what you love!


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