Summary and book reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
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  • Published:
    Feb 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet.

Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other - for no one but Saunders could conceive it.

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 returned to the crypt several times alone 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 thrilling, 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.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction's ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices - living and dead, historical and invented - to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

XXI.

   Mouth at the worm's ear, Father said:

   We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.

   Then let out a sob

   Dear Father crying   That was hard to see   And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

   You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.

   Saying all this to the worm!   How I wished him to say it to me   And to feel his eyes on me   So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me   And in I went   It was no bother at all   Say, it ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

It's too soon to say if the book had a life-changing impact on me, but it certainly transformed my outlook in the near term. I've been encouraged to look at those around me with more compassion and to appreciate all the tiny, everyday miracles that make up a lifeā€”to notice more and to look at the world with renewed wonder. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book I desperately want to share with others, and I can think of no higher recommendation; it's literally unforgettable.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Two sad strains, the spirits' stubborn, nostalgic attachment to the world of the living and Lincoln's monumental sorrow, make up a haunting American ballad that will inspire increased devotion among Saunders's admirers.

Library Journal

Starred Review. A stunningly powerful work, both in its imagery and its intense focus on death, this remarkable work of historical fiction gives an intimate view of 19th-century fears and mores through the voices of the bardo's denizens.

Booklist

Starred Review. Saunders creates a provocative dissonance between his exceptionally compassionate insights into the human condition and Lincoln 's personal and presidential crises and this macabre carnival of the dead, a wild and wily improvisation on the bardo that mirrors, by turns, the ambience of Hieronymus Bosch and Tim Burton. A boldly imagined, exquisitely sensitive, sharply funny, and utterly unnerving historical and metaphysical drama.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. [An} exhilerating change of pace ... Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur

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Beyond the Book

The Bardo

The word bardo comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and means "in-between." It refers to a transitional state when one's awareness of the physical world is suspended. According to Spiritualtravel.org the concept is an "umbrella term which includes the transitional states of birth, death, dream, transmigration or afterlife, meditation, and spiritual luminosity...for the dying individual, the bardo is the period of the afterlife that lies in between two different incarnations." Most of the characters in Lincoln in the Bardo are in this latter state throughout the novel, stuck between life and whatever awaits them beyond.

Broadly speaking, Buddhist philosophy states that while a person's physical body may die, one's essence does not, ...

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