Reviews for Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* Even though Saunders (Tenth of December, 2013), the much-heralded author of distinctively inventive short stories, anchors his first novel to a historical moment the death of President Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, in February 1862 this is most emphatically not a conventional work of historical fiction. The surreal action takes place in a cemetery, and most of the expressive, hectic characters are dead, caught in the bardo, the mysterious transitional state following death and preceding rebirth, heaven, or hell. Their vivid narration resembles a play, or a prose variation on Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (1915), as they tell their stories, which range from the gleefully ribald to the tragic in tales embodying the dire conflicts underlying the then-raging Civil War. On pages laddered with brilliantly curated quotes from books and historical documents (most actual, some concocted), Saunders cannily sets the stage for Lincoln's true-life, late-night visits to the crypt, where he cradles his son's body scenes of epic sorrow turned grotesque by the morphing spirits' frantic reactions. 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. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The buzz is loud and will continue to be so when literary star Saunders goes on a national author tour supported by an all-platform media blitz.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2016 Booklist


Publishers Weekly
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Saunders's (Tenth of December) mesmerizing historical novel is also a moving ghost story. A Dantesque tour through a Georgetown cemetery teeming with spirits, the book takes place on a February night in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently interred 11-year-old son, Willie. The distraught Lincoln's nocturnal visit has a "vivifying effect" on the graveyard's spectral denizens, a gallery of grotesques who have chosen to loiter "in the Bardo"-a Tibetan term for a liminal state-rather than face final judgment. Among this community, which is still riven by racial and class divisions, are Roger Bevins III, who slashed his wrists after being spurned by a lover, and Hans Vollman, a "wooden-toothed forty-six-year-old printer" struck in the head by a falling beam shortly after marrying his young wife. As irritable, chatty, and bored in their purgatory as Beckett characters, Bevins and Vollman devote themselves to saving Willie from their fate: "The young ones," Bevins explains, "are not meant to tarry." Periodically interrupting the graveyard action are slyly arranged assemblies of historical accounts of the Lincoln era. These excerpts and Lincoln's anguished musings compose a collage-like portrait of a wartime president burdened by private and public grief, mourning his son's death as staggering battlefield reports test his (and the nation's) resolve. Saunders's enlivening imagination runs wild in detailing the ghosts' bizarre manifestations, but melancholy is the novel's dominant tone. 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. (Feb.) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal
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Short story master Saunders (Tenth of December) eagerly awaited first novel may not be what fans of his dystopic, sf-like short stories have expected. It begins with snippets of historical fact, accompanied by citations-presumably both actual and fictionalized-that set the novel at the time of the death of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie. The entries shift to quips made by individuals, and we realize we are hearing conversations among spirits that haunt the Washington graveyard where Willie is buried. When Lincoln returns for a grieving nighttime visit, these apparitions attempt to reunite Willie's spirit with his father. Bardo is a term from Tibetan Buddhism referring to the transitional state between death and the next realm; the wraiths in this amorphous space chatter, float about, see visions, and change shape in disorienting ways. Yet they are confined, both by their previous lives and by a fear of final judgment, of which Saunders provides a truly horrifying glimpse. VERDICT 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. [See Prepub Alert, 6/29/16.]-Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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