8/52: Lincoln in the Bardo


Kath's Bookshelf / Friday, March 9th, 2018

Yesterday I finished the eighth book of the year so far; book eight of fifty-books I intend on reading in 2018 (you can follow my reading journey over on my Goodreads account). Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was the book I purchased from a bookshop last month; being a lover of physical books, I’ve decided to buy a book from a bookshop each month this year. I picked up Lincoln in the Bardo as it was everywhere in Covent Garden’s Foyles. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Lincoln in the Bardo is possibly the most confusing book I’ve ever read. And I don’t think Saunders set out for anything less. Based on the understanding President Lincoln used to mourn over the dead body of his child, Saunders tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s son death… with a ghostly spin. In Saunders’ tale, after dying from typhoid fever, Willie Lincoln is trapped in the bardo; a place where inhabitants are stuck between death and the afterlife. As a child, Willie is expected to pass through the bardo quickly; but, after seeing his father grieving, he is inclined to stay.

Although the narrative centres around Abraham and Willie Lincoln’s death, it is through the other characters through which we learn the story. The narrative is predominantly provided by Bevins, Vollman and Reverend Everly Thomas. Their narration is quick and intimate and bewildering and interesting. The whole book is littered intelligently with references; some historical and some fictional. This was my favourite element of the novel; it allowed for the ghost story to feel somewhat historic and for readers to think critically about what is true and what is not. Or if any of it is at all.

I struggled pretty badly with this book. And for this reason I struggle with reviewing it; especially with rating it on Goodreads. I don’t feel my rating is very legitimate at all. As hard as I tried, I found the book simply outdid my brain. Saunders is spoilt for praise and, I can only assume, rightly so. I, however, often found myself lost throughout much of the story. And when I wasn’t lost, I questioned whether I really understood what was going on at all. It is the kind of book I wish I could have read in class; with a teacher to guide my thoughts and peers to bounce my own my questions and literary problems off of.

I did, however, find the story really knitted together in the last hundred pages; whether that’s because I finally understood or because it was an intentional move by Saunders, I’m not sure. I did truly enjoy the last part of the novel and I was grateful to find notes on the book online afterwards. If I can be forgiven by the literary gods, I found a little peace with the most confusing read of my life by reading these notes- something I recommend to others feeling a little stunned by the loud, colourful and inventive story of Lincoln in the Bardo. This book largely stressed me out but I can, in parts, see why it’s so critically acclaimed. It’s entirely unique and really wonderful to see an author take history and put their own twist on it. I recommend if you’re a lover of history and ghost stories but I, for one, will be spending my time reading up on the novel with my very tired and alarmed brain.

I rate Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders as 3/5!

You can…

  • Buy the book on Amazon HERE!
  • Check out other reviews of this book on Goodreads HERE!
  • Read my review of the seventh book I’ve read this year HERE!

“Do the things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial,” – George Saunders.

Love, Kath

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