Cover Image: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

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Member Reviews

I have a rather mixed experience with George Saunders's novels. I haven't yet read any that shine as much as the glowing and effusive reviews might suggest. That's not to say that I don't enjoy his work: I do, and he is extremely talented. It's just that none have landed with the same impact as might be expected.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is an imaginative historical novel, but one about ghosts wrestling with what it means to be mortal (and dead). It's an interesting read, with some great passages. But its strange style may not work for everyone.
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Absolutely phenomenal work from the incomparable George Saunders. This is a huge departure from his collections I've previously read, but as always I was swept away by the unflagging empathy and tenderness for his subjects that touch all of Saunders' writing. I've recommended this book to everyone I know.
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Amazing! I just finished reading this a second time, which is what always happens with 5 star books for me. I’m a bit surprised! I disliked Saunders’ “Tenth of December” very much, so I was a little wary of this one.  But – so many of my trusted Goodreads friends loved this (Angela, Elyse, Cheri, Alena, Connie, Laura…..and so many other wonderful friends and reviewers), that I had to give it a shot.

At first, I wasn’t in love with Saunders’ narrative device. The story, which primarily occurs over the course of one night, is told by many alternating narrators in a conversational manner. After a few chapters of this, I scanned the rest of the book to see how long this was going to go on. My heart sank when I saw THE WHOLE BOOK was like this!! Should I stop? Well, no, my friends loved it so onward! I fell into the rhythm, began to discern who was who and their backstories, and just adored it.

I don’t know how to describe this to do it justice, so let me just paint this image for you. The one thought that went through my mind repeatedly as I read this was, “this book is the exact literary equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych. Saunders creates a purgatory that is fantastical, hilarious, pitiful, horrifying and tender all at the same time. 

The story takes place in a cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, as just been interred after dying from typhoid fever. Most of the central characters are “inhabitants” of the cemetery and their physical representation reveals their essence – who they are/were and their main preoccupation or defining characteristic at the time of their death. Because – although they don’t seem to grasp this central truth – they are all dead. 

It’s a complicated story told in a complicated fashion. I honestly don’t know how Saunders pulled this off, let alone how he came up with this whole scenario to begin with. His imagination is incredible! I wish I could write a review to do this justice, but I can’t. 

This is a book that’s hard to recommend because I have no way of discerning who this book will speak to and who it won’t. My advice – give it a shot and hang in there through at least a quarter of the book. I am not sure how you would be able to follow this – so fragmented, and so many characters – in an audio format, so I would love it if audio book lovers who listened to this would comment with their experiences.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing for an ARC of this wonderful book. My review, however, is based on the hardcover version.
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This was a "did not finish" for me. While the different "voices" were absolutely captivating and the writing was clearly well-done, I felt that the plot and characterization was so "busy" that I didn't have time to fully sink into the story.
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One of the best, gripping, emotional, thrilling reads I've encountered in a long time. Saunders deserves all the praise he's received for this book. He's a national treasure whose work I will always devour.
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American chorus

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders (Random House, $17).

Anytime someone asks for a novel rec, I’m giving this one. That’s not because it’s the most recent or even the most absolutely literary, but because it is the most American–and that’s what we need right now.

Simply enough, the novel takes place over the days immediately after the burial of young Willie Lincoln in the deep winter of 1862. It triggered the bout of melancholy that lasted until the president’s death three years later. The graveyard where Willie is interred in a mausoleum (his body was later moved to Illinois) serves as the physical location of the bardo, the intermediary place between life and death.

The various residents of the bardo–save one–are in deep denial about their state. Most of them, detached from time and the flesh, cannot imagine that they will not “recover” and return to the lives they left; as they slowly transform into figures unrecognizable as human, the psychological machinations through which they delude themselves become even more elaborate and they envision moving on as death, rather than what they have already experienced.

Meanwhile, Lincoln has returned to the mausoleum to hold Willie’s body, so deep in his grief that he is nearly mad with it. Some of our “ghosts,” for lack of a better word, see the president’s presence as a chance to escape the bardo.

While we toggle between the voices of a deceased newspaper publisher, a suicide, and a minister, we also get a sense of the United States as a mishmash of histories, ideas, dreams and desires. And no, it’s not fully inclusive–women are minor characters; there are no Native voices; slaves are relegated (with a singular exception) to a nameless ditch.

In other words, it’s the same as it ever was.

But it is also a specific moment in time, one in which Lincoln is confronted with the loss of a beloved son and so understands the deep grief of a nation losing sons on the battlefield daily. It is a moment in which one man’s decision made all the difference–and that is the crux of this novel.

So, no, it’s not perfect. But it is so very American that it is true in every way.
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Like The Graveyard Book for grown-ups.
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What has Saunders done here?! Amazing! The audio edition of this is not to be missed.
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What an incredible feat of writing!  George Saunders, has, once again,  provided an experience that will keep you pondering the meaning of existence.
It is early 1962 and the country is now in the throes of the Civil War amid the realization that it will not be over quickly.  President Abraham Lincoln is the leader in conflict,a compassionate, heroic figure for the times.  His beloved son, Willie, dies, and resurfaces in the bardo, that transitional state of being.  
To attempt to describe that place between life and one's final resting place would do an injustice to the frightening, beautiful world that Saunders has created.  The question he poses about life, love and its purpose will leave you thinking for so long after you finish.
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A fascinating look at death, grief and the afterlife, told through a panoply of the dead. The unusual writing style does take some getting used to, but the story carries through to an outstanding crescendo.
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I don't ever remember making this much of an effort to read a book before. The first time I picked up George Saunders' novel, Lincoln on the Bardo, I was halfway through the book when I stopped reading after realizing that I just wasn't getting a complete picture and was too confused to continue any further. I was also having difficulty categorizing this avant garde piece. Not magical realism despite the graveyard setting with the apparitions moving the plot forward, nor a horror story even though the ghostly characters, whose features reflect the moment of their death, come with a complete set of questionable behaviors, but a tale without any narration, purely quotes from both the living and the dead - a dramatic farce
, of sorts, without any stage directions, depicting events through the "dialogue" as the players disclose their personal sagas. 

The "plot" begins at the White House where Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln are hosting a gala, feting the community with all manner of delicacies, while upstairs their son Willie, who has contracted Typhoid, lies dying instead of being on the mend as the doctor had promised. The death of their beloved son leaves not only the Lincolns bereft, but also touches the hearts of all those who knew the young lad. While the community mourns along with the President, many castigate the parents for continuing with the celebration at such a time. All this is explained through quotes from various publications and diaries depicting the event, with numerous contradictions about the details - there was a full moon, the moon was new, it was a cloudy night, the sky was clear, etc. The funeral was well attended and little Willie was laid to rest in a borrowed Crypt. Lincoln, unable to accept the loss of his son, visits the graveyard, removing the deceased boy from his casket to hug and caresss the lifeless form, promising to return. All this is based on true events. 

Next comes Saunders extrapolation of the dead who have not gone into the beyond, remaining in the "Bardo", a sort of holding center. The spirits watch this aberration of behavior, wondering. Willie wants to remain in the graveyard awaiting his father's promised return, but the three main characters, Roger Blevins III (suicide victim) Hans Vollman (possible heart attack), Rev Everly Thomas (appalled at his future awaited fate) urge him on to the afterlife. Young ones are not to stay behind, although others have chosen to remain, not trusting the beyond. Each lost soul wants to share their particular tale of death with the lad, in the hopes that his luck might touch them as well, with an undertone that Willie might yet return to his old life through the power of his father. Never before has anyone touched, let alone hugged, a body after being laid to rest. It is this unusual feat which draws everyone close to the boy. As the story unfolds the reader is exposed to the idiosyncrasies of the graveyard where the souls still exist, returning to their "sick boxes" each day, even as their bodies decay, resisting the call from those who try to trick them into leaving the mortal realm. 

This extremely confusing book needs some explanations before the reader opens the first page. With so many characters, it is difficult to follow so I decided to give the audiotape a try. Still, with a multitude of voices, (166, including the numerous quotes, many from real sources), I needed to simultaneously read the book as I listened to get the gist of the story. Only then could I decipher what was actually happening.

I must say that deciding to use this large number of separate narrators to tell the tale was a moment of brilliance. While some of the readers are unknown, many are A list actors with big names such as Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Ben Stiller, Don Cheadle, and even the author, George Saunders, taking part. Nick and David, portraying the main characters, did a phenomenal job, with their interpretations bringing the graveyard to life. While Saunders had a credible performance, he could not compete with the other two actors who definitely earned their pay. The others taking on smaller roles were delightful, especially Bill Hader and Megan Mullally portraying foul mouthed white trash who lived in the black community, allowing some discourse on the slavery issue. As I followed along with the text, the words came alive in a way my mind could never imagine, especially some heart felt sections when the true plights of the "victims" are finally revealed. 

So, while still a bizarre book, I finally was able to finish and appreciate the author's intent, with the last quarter of the book providing some hope and inspiration about life beyond the grave, although there are still a myriad of questions which I would like the author to answer. Since this book utilizes an unusual format to advance the plot, It was a shock to hear Lincoln on the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Award, (especially considering an American won last year as well). I wonder how many other readers will take the time necessary to appreciate this offbeat book and Saunders' unique approach to literature.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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This book reads like the literary achievement that it is. It's unique and bold and told in a style that I haven't come across before. Any challenges I had were because of my own personal reading taste - the shift in narrator was jarring at times, but was what made it interesting I think. And honestly - it just won the Man Booker. That says more than I ever could!
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I was not a fan of this book as I had supposed I would be. Author has brilliant short stories however this novel had working to hard to love from the start. Once I fell into to sync with the writing style it got better, but it's not what I had hoped from this author and fabulous premise.
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Fascinating and original, George Saunders' first novel uses a unique format utilizing real and fictional information and a variety of haunted voices to tell the story of Lincoln's grief over his young son's tragic death. The conceit wears a bit after a while, but well worth the read. More, please, sir.
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I believe the author should stick to short stories.
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I was surprised by how much I loved this book. I picked it up being very wary since I've never gotten into George Saunders' writing before, but I wound up wanting to go back and revisit all his earlier works now that I have a firmer grasp on his writing style. The prose and dialogue in this book seem disjointed at first, but ultimately, Saunders weaves it all together to build a beautiful story of the loss of a child, the afterlife, and how we are haunted by those who have left our life. His style is quirky and witty yet sends a profound message to his readers about a part of history about which so few people know. I found myself researching more details about Lincoln and the death of his young son. Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, I would definitely give this book as a gift, particularly to those who are fascinated by the human aspects of history and novels with a gothic feel. I'm impressed by Saunders' ability to weave together a beautiful story with abstract writing.
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While this book was not my personal favorite, I understand why many people would enjoy it.  The multiple narrators left things a bit jumbled, but the premise allowed me to power through.  An interesting read and an interesting perspective.
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This book is amazing. Pure brilliance. I think it's safe to say that this will be the best book I'll read in 2017, not even knowing what I'll read the rest of the year.  The book is incredibly difficult to put down, the compelling story and beautiful writing made disrupting the flow of the sentences feel like a crime.
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At first go, it didn't grab me. Once I picked it up for a second attempt, I read over 100 pages. Simply beautiful, bittersweet, sublime. You feel the weight of grief, subtle humor & hope all at once.
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People are going a little crazy about George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo and I have to say I understand why. It was a singular reading experience and I now feel the need to read everything Saunders ever wrote.

Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of the death of Willie Lincoln, which occurred within the first year of Abraham Lincoln's presidency and at the onset of the Civil War. Saunders imagines what happened when Lincoln went to visit and hold his son's body while it resided in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery. Willie does not immediately leave the earth, but instead is in the Bardo, a purgatory-like place with a diverse multitude of inhabitants who he interacts with.

This novel gave me goosebumps, made me gasp, brought tears to my eyes, and elicited laughter. I listened to a bunch of interviews with Saunders (including the Professional Book Nerds Podcast and Mashreads Podcast) and was struck by his statement that he wanted readers to feel speechless at the end, then emotional, then to start analyzing. This is exactly I experienced.

I want to tell you why this book was so different, but I also don't want to spoil it for you! Suffice it to say that I definitely recommend it.

(I was tempted to give this book five stars because it is unlike anything I've ever read. I withheld that last star as a one woman protest of literary fiction's tendency to ALWAYS include a completely unnecessary sexual reference in effort to shock the reader. If you read Lincoln in the Bardo, you'll know exactly what I'm referring to.)
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