BOOK REVIEW | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning – unique in style and rich in substance. I have never read anything like this before, and loved this new reading experience. This is one of those rare books that I could start over again immediately.

Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, falls ill and dies leaving Abraham wrought with guilt and sorrow. Willie passes on to the bardo, a Tibetan concept of purgatory, and is greeted by other spirits who are stuck in this place, refusing to believe themselves dead. The ghosts want to help Willie move through to the other side, as young ones are not meant to tarry. Over the course of one night, Abraham visits Willie’s grave multiple times to be with his boy once more. Meanwhile, the United States is at war and we gain insights into Abraham’s torment about the state of the country, and how his grief shaped his presidency.

The story is told by the ghosts in purgatory as well as through historical accounts, making for a completely new reading journey. It took me a little getting used to, but all of the insights painted a layered picture of who Abraham Lincoln was, as well as the depth of his grief.

The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.

An examination of grief, Saunders astutely captures the horror of a parent loosing a child. It’s all consuming, backwards, unimaginable. This is not the story of a president, but rather of a father who is desperate in his sorrow – so desperate that holding his son’s body, just a little longer, feels like the right thing to do. A beautiful and haunting book that won’t leave me soon.

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