Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders | Fiction



I was intimated by Lincoln in the Bardo from the first I heard of it.  Over 100 characters.  But then my friend and college roommate Janet (Janet is an Abe Lincoln aficionado.  She even belongs to a Lincoln book club.  At which she met the author George Saunders) shared the secret with me ... listen to the audiobook.  Audiobooks typically have one, sometimes two readers, but Lincoln in the Bardo made publishing history. There are 166 voices in the audiobook.  All professionals.

I feel like I am writing a review of a play.  Listening to all those voices drew a surprisingly vibrant picture of the Bardo; it doesn’t feel like a book to me.

The Bardo is the place souls go when they disconnect from their bodies after death, but before they are reincarnated again.  The tale begins with the (historically accurate) death of Lincoln’s son Willie, at the age of 13, from typhoid fever.  The thread that runs through the book is Willie’s experience in the Bardo ... his first full day.

I wondered if a greater knowledge of history was important, but two of the major characters, Hans Vollman (voice by Nick Offerman) and Roger Bevins III (voice by David Sedaris) appear to be fictional characters.  We meet many other characters (another 160 or so!) in the Bardo.  It is a rather disheartening place, where souls bring all the good and bad of their lives in the “previous place” to be examined and often judged harshly.  But we keep returning to Willie and his father Abe, tying the story together.

There are wonderful interludes in which the narrator reads from a vast array of historical books and papers on whatever subject us at hand ... from the color of Abe’s eyes to Willie’s funeral.  No two historical records seem to agree on much of anything!

I could have rated this book 2, 3, or 4 hearts, at various times in the listening.  Truthfully, I don’t quite understand it.  I wonder why Saunders found it so important to have so much sex and swearing,  but he did.  I do not know if there is a message, or even a plot.  Yet, it is quite a vivid experience to read/listen to it.  A week later, I keep thinking about it.

Go ahead, give Lincoln in the Bardo a try, and, do, for heaven’s sake, comment here!

Recommended by Sara in book club and reconfirmed by Janet.


One response on “Lincoln in the Bardo

  1. Rene

    Andrea, I think you summarized it brilliantly. My sentiments exactly. I listened to the book. I gave it 3 of 5 stars. I too didn’t completely understand it.