Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Book description

WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 A STORY OF LOVE AFTER DEATH 'A masterpiece' Zadie Smith 'Extraordinary' Daily Mail 'Breathtaking' Observer 'A tour de force' The Sunday Times The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of…

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Why read it?

12 authors picked Lincoln in the Bardo as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike any novel I’ve ever read (and I’ve been reading them for a very long time). 

Through a collage of more than 100 voices — some historical, some fictional, some alive, some dead, some dead-but-not-departed  — it assembles a picture of the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie’s death. At times comical, at others wrenchingly sad, Saunders’ book took me on a spiritual and emotional journey only he could have imagined, but which I will not soon forget. 

I loved this novel because it was haunting, historical, and existential with an experimental format that blew my mind almost like an intense meditation session.

While some people may find the experimental format jarring, it transported me to a surreal disorienting dimension similar to a dream or bardo state. If you’re not familiar with the Bardo, it’s worth researching.

The word Bardo in the title is what originally attracted me to the novel because of my interest in Buddhism. Yet the bardo in this novel reminded me more of Dante’s Inferno!

The technique used at the beginning to establish the…

If you’ve ever looked at a picture of Abraham Lincoln and wondered why he looked so sad, you may find your answer here. He faced an almost insurmountable challenge and mourned the potentially fatal division of his country, it is true. But the death of his young son compounded that grief. Before reading this book, I had never heard of a ‘Bardo,’ and I’m still not convinced of its existence, except as a psychological state. But as a bereaved parent myself, I could understand Lincoln’s need to hold onto the memory of his dead son a little while longer. If…

Lincoln in the Bardo is a compelling, harrowing novel about our greatest American political leader, and probably one of our greatest poets as well. Abraham Lincoln, in raw grief at the death of his beloved son Willie, soars in his humanity and intelligence, and resolve above the strange but beautiful world of this novel—a kind of transitional place between life and death. No book about politics has captured so well the tangled web of the personal and the political in a complex world.

The power of the spectral afterworld in this novel convinced me to cast my novel about John…

From James' list on poets and politics.

Persevere with this book. I had trouble with its unorthodox structure and convoluted opening, and almost gave up. But this complex novel is worth the struggle, and yielded deeper emotional impact upon a second reading. The inhabitants of Oak Hill Cemetery are confused and distorted spirits trapped in bardo, a Buddhist term for the shadow state between life and death. Unable to acknowledge their actual condition, they retreat to their “sick-boxes” (coffins) during the day and congregate at night. They are joined by the traumatized spirit of a young boy named Willie. When Willie’s father, President Abraham Lincoln, visits in…

What can I say about this incredible, hilarious, deeply moving, formally dazzling mashup of the fantastic and the historical except I would pretty much give my right foot to have written it myself? Set during the days immediately after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie from typhus in 1862, it is narrated by the spirits of the deceased that surround him in the cemetery. These ghosts are hanging around, it turns out, because they have all failed to make the leap into the unknown of the afterlife, to let go of their attachment to this world. Each has…

This novel famously features a cast of 166 narrators… and not a single one of them has any idea what’s happened to them. Again, it’s a question of self-preservation; they don’t want to know what’s going on, because what’s going on is this: they’re dead. This is not a spoiler. The reader knows the situation from the beginning, and thus the tension in the book is not about our discovery of the truth, but about theirs. This is a powerful and surprisingly uplifting book about trust and acceptance. 

Lincoln in the Bardo is breathtaking. During a single night when Abraham Lincoln visits the tomb of his recently deceased son, his memories and reveries dance together with snippets of contemporary historical commentary and observations by the shades of the disoriented dead. These swirling fragments tease together a touching set of interlocked narratives that you almost feel rather than follow. I was particularly impressed by how Saunders’ mastery of craft holds the book’s fragmentary elements together.

From K.R.'s list on deeply weird historical novels.

George Saunders is the kind of author who makes his readers believe that anything is possible, and I would follow him anywhere. This strange and lyrical novel grew out of a small kernel of historical fact: in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was in the White House and the country was in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln lost his 11-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever, and he was so devastated that he visited the cemetery where the boy had been laid to rest, to hold the child in his arms one last time. The story is told in bits…

From Carolyn's list on characters dealing with grief.

Writing historical fiction, I tend to stick pretty faithfully to the period I’m thinking about, trying for an immersive experience, but then other books come along, beckoning with their unexpected gifts. In this deeply moving meditation on grief, the loss of a child, and the liminal space between life and letting go of it, I found so much rich ground for thinking about the eleven days between the birth of Mary Shelley and the death of Mary Wollstonecraft—a mother and child having to say hello and goodbye all at once. Come for Saunders’ prodigious imagination, stay for his extraordinary humanity.   

From Samantha's list on Wollstonecraft.

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