Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo
By George Saunders
Random House, 9780812995343, February 2017, 368pp.

The Short of It:

A unique and touching story about the loss of a child and what happens next.

The Rest of It:

Young Willie Lincoln dies at a very young age, leaving his father, President Lincoln and his mother Mary, to grieve over his loss.


Willie’s spirit will not leave the cemetery in which he was interred, accompanied by others who have chosen to do the same. For one reason or another, they can’t seem to move out of this “bardo” into the next life yet they all vow to help young Willie because the thought of an innocent child spending eternity in such a grim place, is too much for these characters to bear.

Lincoln in the Bardo includes some very interesting, and sometimes even playful characters and almost reads like a play except that characters express the thoughts and feelings of other characters instead of themselves which takes a little getting used to. But after that, I found myself completely wrapped-up in the story of this young boy trying to find his way.

Things you should know:

  • You won’t learn much about President Lincoln from this novel.
  • Many of the works cited are fictional.
  • There are a lot of characters (160+)
  • Even though the afterlife is discussed, no one religion is emphasized.
  • You will be Googling for Civil War facts while reading, but I suggest you read first and Google later.
  • It helps to have a basic understanding of the Bardo and what it is.

Lincoln in the Bardo is beautifully written.  I highlighted many sentences and I don’t often do that. The subject matter is somewhat somber but it’s lightened-up by the playfulness of the characters. It’s tragic in that these characters can never correct their mistakes and as a result live forever in regret but it has stayed with me long after finishing it and the image of these spirits spending eternity in the cemetery is haunting. Check out this virtual reality experience to get a feel for what I am talking about:

Go to this page and scroll down to the bottom to view. Once there, click around to explore.

I know some readers are divided over the book but I loved it and my book club had plenty to discuss when we met. I plan to buy a copy as soon as the paperback comes out in February.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

21 thoughts on “Review: Lincoln in the Bardo”

  1. My book club was supposed to read this book but a couple people started it and hated it so they voted not to read it. I say “they” because I’m kind of over them and don’t participate much these days.

    1. Let me tell you, a few from my group read it early and said the same thing. But if you get past those first few pages you quickly “get it” and it’s smooth sailing from then on. The format throws you at first but the ones who stuck with it, in the end, said that they liked it.

    1. Really? It is short listed for the Man Booker Prize. The audio recording required over 160 actors and included some big names like Ben Stiller, etc. They are making it into a movie but that will be a stretch. It reads like a play and takes place almost entirely in one setting. I’m not sure how that would be on the big screen. I really loved it but you really have to get past those first few pages to appreciate it.

  2. The print version is awesome. The audio version is utterly amazing. I laughed. I cried. I grew anxious. And I even knew what was coming because I had literally just finished the printed version. I have never done that with any novel before – finish it in one format and immediately read it again in a different format. I do hope this one wins at least one award this year. To me, it is worth it!

    1. I can’t even imagine how amazing the audio is. I really need to get a copy. I teared up when I clicked on that VR experience I included in the review. So heartbreaking.

      1. Bill Hader and Megan Mullaly are Eddie and Betsy Baron. They had me rolling with laughter! Bradley Whitford as LT Cecil Stone is hilarious too. Nick Offerman does an amazing job as Vollman. I didn’t like his character in print, but Offerman really makes him human.

        1. OMG that casting!! LOL. I really thought Eddie and Betsy were funny, even in print.

          And just the funny little things thrown in like the twirling girl and how they were suspended in time, forever affected by whatever they were obsessed with at the time of death.

  3. I’m sort of wondering : should I go with the print version or the audio? Hmm. I want to get the full understanding of it. I like your tips above on the Things One should Know first. This is helpful. I’m game for it.

    1. Don’t let the number of characters hold you back. It’s seamless. However, I think as a history buff you’d want more historical references than what the book provides but it’s a load of fun and you will be looking up Civil War facts afterward.

  4. Interesting. I had the same thought about this working almost as a play. In fact, I could totally see a dramatic reading of excerpts from this work. It did take me a while to engage with the characters, but the second half moved very well. I loved the redemption that many characters were able to achieve. In the end, this novel left me in a hopeful mood.

    1. I agree. There was hope there at the end. The people who have given it negative reviews never got past the format in the beginning. That’s my feeling.

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