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Review: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders


One of the most engaging and exciting novels I have read in recent years, this story centers on the supposedly true reports that Abraham Lincoln visited the grave of his dead son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 11. It is known that Lincoln kept Willie at the White House for several days, but rumors persisted that he visited the gravesite mausoleum as well.

Saunders uses the Tibetan concept of the “Bardo”, as a place on earth for souls caught between the journey to heaven or hell. These unique individual spirits are captured in an ongoing ghostly purgatory, unaware that they are “stuck” to the world, unable to move on, but unable to interact with the living.

Willie, seeing his father’s presence at his tomb, is in danger of being another soul, forever tethered to the earth. Dozens of characters inhabit this sepulchral cemetery scene. Engaging with each other, but incapable of venturing beyond the cemetery walls, these spirits are honorable, serious, humorous, ridiculous, sad, bereft, loving, caring, wise and banal. Their deaths occurred last week or two centuries ago. Willie becomes a cause celebre for several of these Bardo inhabitants, those very few who realize that this condition they are bound to is not the correct way for a life to end, attempt to help him be free, believing his only reward will be heaven. Some realize their situation but are too afraid to venture onward, for fear of the possible outcome being far less than heaven.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is, alternately, exciting, sad, dismal, dark, uplifting, funny, breath-taking, experimental, satisfying and pure excitement and terror as one reaches the dramatic finale. A uniquely strange combination of history and imagination culminates in a conflict between good and evil well beyond the grave.