George Saunders is not an author with whom I was familiar prior to reading Lincoln in the Bardo. What drew me is the title, being both a Lincoln/American Civil War enthusiast (I’ve never really liked the term “Civil War buff” though I certainly meet the criteria) and dabbler in eastern religions and spirituality. The term “bardo” refers to a state of consciousness between death and rebirth. The story focuses on the death of President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie in February, 1862 during the first term of Lincoln’s presidency and America’s escalation into its nearly year-old Civil War.
I have read, in various forums, that readers’ preferred format for this novel is the audio-book. I can easily understand this as the story features a cacophony of character voices—graveyard residents—whose souls retain a variety of personalities so diverse that it seems a shame to deny one’s ears the pleasure. Saunders creates a dialog between characters that is, in many ways, more reminiscent of a play than a novel. Truncated, rapid-fire responses mixed with monologue. The character dialog is interspersed with citations from the many, many books (of which I have read a number) written about Lincoln himself, his administration, the Todd family (Mary Lincoln’s kin) and the Civil War era. Generally speaking, my first impression of this book was not positive. The quirky writing-style was so alien to me that I felt it a bit too bizarre for my taste. In fact, I reluctantly abandoned it early on but it was my love of all things Lincoln, along with the understanding that beneath the literary quirk was a truly talented writer, that brought me back to its pages for another try and, ultimately, I am pleased that it did.
Saunders’ portrayal of Lincoln’s grief and heart-wrenching loss; his visits to the cemetery—allegedly, to exhume and caress his son’s entombed body—in the days after Willie’s death was, at times, emotionally overwhelming. It felt almost intrusive to be reading something so personal and emotionally weighted. In scenes both reviling and beautiful, the author takes you to places you ordinarily believe you would surely decline to go. Until you go. And it becomes the tragic sight from which you can’t avert your eyes. It is by no means a light, fun read. There is wonderfully creative and talented prose as well as a good dose of humor in some of his many characters but for anyone who has suffered a loss of such magnitude, an emotional ride awaits you in this book.