Arts Reviews

October Book Of The Month: Lincoln In The Bardo

Amelia Gibbs

An unconventional ghost story for Halloween, George Saunders ponders grief, morality, and memory in his debut full-length novel Lincoln In The Bardo, set in Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown in 1862. Amelia Gibbs reviews.

In the winter of 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s third son Willie died of apparent typhoid fever aged only 11. In the months following his death, it is believed that Lincoln visited Willie’s crypt on several occasions to cradle the body of his beloved son for the final few instances. It is this simple, beautiful, and heart-breaking story that inspired George Saunders to pen his first full-length novel – the triumphant Lincoln in the Bardo.

Taking place during and immediately after the death of Willie Lincoln, the novel follows the boy’s ghost as he finds himself lingering in a transitional state between life and death. It is in this transitional state, or “Bardo”, that we meet the other ghostly inhabitants of Oak Hill Cemetery – a cast of 166 characters to be exact, some disturbing and some humorous, but all bizarre, vibrant, and fascinating. It’s Saunders’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln however that leaves the grandest and most permanent impression. Portrayed beautifully and powerfully, we see a version of Lincoln who is haunted by his tragedy – though it’s his unashamed sorrow and unwavering love for his son that ultimately leads him to strength by the novel’s end.

The story is unconventionally written in a chorus of monologues spoken by our ensemble of spirits, and the lack of traditional paragraphs may prove frustrating for some to initially grasp. However, the experimental form isn’t convoluted for the sake of it. The format achieves a fast paced and sometimes chaotic reading experience, reflecting the very chaos of the world in which the novel is set, and Saunders’ decision to favour interchange over explanation captures your imagination. Aided by only a few descriptors, Saunders allows you the unique opportunity to visualise the setting, atmosphere, and characters almost completely independently, and thus from the outset you are engaged very personally in the world of the story.

The novel is both heart wrenching in its moving descriptions of grief, and extraordinarily funny with its host of wonderfully peculiar characters

Saunders intersperses his fantasy world with non-fictional accounts from the period, fleshing out the private and political circumstances of the Lincoln family during the time of Willie’s death. The result not only allows you a break from the tangled symphony of fictional voices, but also reminds you poignantly that the event of Willie Lincoln’s untimely death was very much real and was felt painfully by many across the country. As fantastical and eccentric as the premise and characters may be, in the end we are presented with a very real and grounded story of love and grief centred around the tragic passing of a very real child – a fact that Saunders doesn’t allow you to forget.

By combining both magical realism and historical fiction, George Saunders has mastered the art of duality. The novel is both heart wrenching in its moving descriptions of grief, and extraordinarily funny with its host of wonderfully peculiar characters. Poignant and enjoyable in equal measure, this utterly unique and memorable book asks you to ponder questions of morality and the nature of dying, as well as arising thoughts on loss, memory, and family. And while it’s haunting fictional narrative and other-worldly setting does make this read perfect for the current season, Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel that will continue to move readers year-round and for decades yet.

five stars

Amelia Gibbs

Featured image courtesy of Amelia Gibbs. No changes made to this image. Permission to use granted to Impact.

In-article images courtesy of @wordontheread via No changes made to these images.

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