Usually, when there is a lot of hype surrounding a book – especially when said book is of the literary fiction or historical fiction variety – I’m either going to love it or hate it. And, if I’m being honest, I’m more likely to dislike it than not. So I was pretty skeptical going into George Saunders debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. But, by the time I reached the end, I knew this was going to be a book I loved.
(From Goodreads) On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.
Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.
I almost don’t know how to begin reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo. It was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered as a reader, both in form and content. I think there was actually a bit of a learning curve associated with reading it, which was kind of amazing. I don’t think there’s any other book I can say that about. Since this is probably confusing all of you, I’ll start with the format of this book:
It is something between a novel and a play. It tells a complete story, which takes place in a single night. It begins with reports of the Lincolns on the night Willie Lincoln dies, snippets of diaries and articles and gossip. And then it morphs into a chorus, each character telling their own part of the story, blending them together to make a whole. It is, I will admit, a bit disorienting (for the first few pages, I remember thinking, “wow, this is a lot of epigraphs”). But I got the hang of it fairly quickly, and ended up absolutely loving how the snippets blend together. The pacing of this story was brilliant, and I think that was due mainly to the unique format.
The characters themselves were definitely one of my favorite parts of this book. I wouldn’t exactly call this a ghost story, but almost all of the characters are ghosts. Which was especially fun, because it made for a very diverse cast of characters from a wide range of backgrounds and time periods. I found that all the different characters – and there are a lot – blended well together, and made for a great story since they told if from many different perspectives. I couldn’t even tell you a favorite, because they came together to form a single narrator so well.
This book looks at life (and death) with both humor and seriousness. It looks at many of the fears we have about death, but also gives hope. It was – for me, at least – a book that will stay with me for a very long time.
I’ve never read any of Saunders’s other work, but I definitely will be after this! I can’t get over how absolutely brilliant this book was. It made for a highly unique reading experience that I won’t forget anytime soon. I highly recommend it if you’re into historical fiction or literary fiction. Or if you just want to read a really different type of book.
Lincoln in the Bardo will be available at all major book retailers starting February 14. You can order (or preorder) your copy here! (Or, to get it free, click the Audible link in the sidebar -or right here – and choose it as one of your two free audiobooks! I might actually be listening to the audiobook as well, because it’s a full cast recording with an ah-mazing cast. There are literally 166 cast members, including a ton of incredible actors I tried to list but it was way too long. Seriously, go check it out!)
This book was provided to me by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.