Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

LINCOLN IN THE BARDOI was in Syracuse, New York. I had packed the last two books in the Lord of the Rings series and then had devoured what was left of them. I was headed to a pedicure with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and daughter and had about 20 minutes before my appointment to spare. There were two used book stores on the same street and, although unfamiliar with the area, I was compelled down the street to get myself a book (and just be around all those books!) before doing the drive back home. I had maybe ten minutes in the shop, no internet access to speak of (in order to look at my list of books-to-read-next/TBR), and so found myself in front of one of the fiction shelves, zoning out while staring at the books displayed on top. Something caught my eye: a pristine paperback copy of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d heard of this book. More than one person in my writing group had recommended it, and I was pretty sure I had slid it into my TBR. Somewhere. Two minutes to go? Alright then, in my hand, on the counter, and out the door.

Little did I know.

Books are funny that way. You can buy a book with stars in your eyes and plaudits ringing in your ears and be sorely disappointed. Or you can snag a book in about 30 seconds that you have a vague inkling of and it rises to your favorite-books-of-all-time list before you’re even done with it. Can you tell where I’m headed? This is one of my favorite books. Of all time. And when I told one of my writer friends that I was reading it and almost done, we had this totally nerdy interaction where we basically just shouted out positive attributes of this book. In public.

Not that it’s all unicorns and fairies. (Actually, there are no unicorns or fairies.) But it’s a tremendous book, for sure. It not only tells a great story and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, but it’s written so dang beautifully. Other awesome things about it: it’s unique and fresh; it’s chock-full of twists and turns and surprises; the characters are well-developed and interesting; the language is, at times, breath-takingly beautiful; it’s funny; it’s thought-provoking and full of deep contemplation; its based on history and gives it a fascinating turn… That might be about it, in a nut shell.

“So what’s this book about?!” you’re screaming, or else you’re screaming “Where have you been, under a rock?! I already know all about it.” Even the premise is interesting. It’s a ghost story. Not like a horror ghost story, but a ghost story nonetheless. A ghost story of the ilk of the Haunted House ride at Disney World. It reminded me very much of the room where the ghosts are partying in the graveyard. Anyhoo, we’re back in history and Abraham Lincoln is President, right in the middle of the Civil War. Lincoln’s child son, Willie has just died and finds himself in a graveyard with the other ghosts, unwilling to make the transition to the other side, what lays beyond the bardo. Ah, did you have to look that one up? It’s a Buddhist concept similar to, but not identical to, limbo. So Willie is the Lincoln in the bardo. Or is he? It has been reported that Abraham Lincoln returned to his son’s unburied casket multiple times to see the body, perhaps hold it. So now we have two Lincolns in the graveyard, one in the bardo, and somehow with that thought and in only one night of action and a dozen or so other strong characters (ghosts, all), we have a very compelling story.

There is something I should warn you about. Saunders wrote this book a little weird. There are whole chapters that are just quotes. And then the rest of the chapters are meant to appear like a series of quotes, with the character who said them’s name appearing afterward. So sort of like a play, but with the names at the END of the lines. And there is no narrator, so oftentimes a character narrates what is happening. Um. How to put this nicely? There was no need for this tomfoolery and it only distracts from a great piece of literature. The quotes? Sure. Even the narrating characters are okay, but the constant breaks and sometimes being unclear as to who’s speaking? Just not pleasant. I suppose I should be “taking something away” from this choice, but what I take away is that some people—people who would otherwise love this book—just won’t touch it with a ten foot pole the way it is. (It does make you wonder when they’ll turn it into a play or a movie or a TV show.)

Also, I can’t recommend this book across the board because it is a little gritty. Innocent on some levels, and gritty as well. I don’t know how he does that, but there really is this demure-depraved thing going on which captures some of the tension of the time period. While it never sinks to the level of Game of Thrones, there are some, ahem, moments and details that would keep me from reading it aloud in a room full of high schoolers. Yet it all makes sense, and in the end it also celebrates the world, nature, life in such a way as to be more hopeful than revolting.

One last thing. Some of the quotes are real. Some are not. Some of the history is accurate. Most of it is, obviously, not. This can be frustrating if you like to keep your facts straight. But let me just suggest that you take a deep breath and plunge in anyways, because while Lincoln may be rolling over in his grave while you read, this ride will be worth it.

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