Book to Read: Lincoln in the Bardo

Published in 2017, Lincoln in the Bardo is George’s Saunder’s first novel. Written in an experimental style, the title was the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller in early March of 2017. Lincoln in the Bardo received widespread critical acclaim, winning the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Time magazine listed the book as one of its top ten novels of 2017, and it was listed as a bestseller in the United States by The New York Times and USA Today. The novelist Colson Whitehead called the book a “luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”

The novel takes place during and after the death of William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s young son. The book’s plot comprises the single evening immediately following Willie’s death; fellow spirits, Willie, and Abraham Lincoln himself are major characters. Much of the novel occurs in the bardo, the Tibetan term for the Buddhist conceptualization of purgatory—the intermediate state between death and reincarnation. Willie awakes after death to find himself in this liminal state. Ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and perform strange acts of penance. The plot’s primary concern is with the state of Willie’s soul; he must leave the bardo if it is to survive.

Lincoln in the Bardo‘s major themes include loss, grief, and identity. Abraham Lincoln, who is present throughout the novel but unaware of his ghostly compatriots, agonizes over his son’s death, the American Civil War, and life itself. Saunders artfully discussing familial love and loss through this paternal relationship, inspiring fellow characters to reflect on the state of their own, ancient affairs. By the book’s end, readers will find themselves reflecting on the parts of life for which they are grateful.

Though Lincoln in the Bardo certainly gleans a net-positive reading experience, the highly-stylized prose comes at a price. Readers should assume a critical eye while embarking on this read; it may take some several dozen pages to grow accustomed to the strange narrative style. Written exclusively in dialogue and verbalized narration, the novel works as a play or piece of drama—characters take turns narrating and describing scenes between conversation. This, however, is unsurprising for a Man Booker Prize winner; the award leans heavily into mainstream experimental literature.