Lincoln in the Bardo
I just finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo and I wanted to get a review out right away, to tell you about an excellent book and an important read, especially for me.
Lincoln in the Bardo was first published in 2017 and it’s been on my reading list for almost that long. When my father died in 2018, my brother Rick spoke at the funeral and, in his remarks, he talked about this book in which Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie. To give you perspective, this is in 1862 during the first year of the Civil War as the nation looks hard at Lincoln to do something about the war. So now Lincoln is mourning his son’s death, but he’s also shouldering an immense responsibility as war casualties grow at an alarming rate.
In an effort to understand why his son was taken, Lincoln visits the crypt where Willie’s body rests. There, but without his knowledge, Lincoln is surrounded by the ghosts of those who have died, but are trapped in the bardo, a Buddhist term for the intermediate stage between life and rebirth. Lincoln, still grief-stricken, tells his son he will be back and Willie’s spirit resists being taken to the next stage so that he can see his father again and help him make sense of it.
The book includes a multitude of ghosts whose features take varied and exaggerated forms that reflect their time on earth. Saunders features three main ghosts, a young gay man who died by suicide after his lover spurned him, a middle-aged printer who died in an accident before he could consummate his marriage and a minister who passed away peacefully after a presumably honorable life. These three ghosts act as narrators and also coordinate an effort to help Willie and his father move forward. In addition, they discover much about themselves and each other.
At the end, Lincoln finally understands that he must return to his life because he has important work to do, to make things better, as a father and husband, of course, but also as president of a warring nation. My experience reading this book, especially when I reached this point, became emotional because I felt I could see into my brother’s mind as he prepared his remarks for our father’s funeral. The very ideas in this book, realized by Lincoln, became the words that my brother spoke to us all, urging us to honor our father’s memory by continuing with our own important work. You may know that my brother Rick passed away in August and the words he spoke just three years earlier about continuing with a purpose have taken on a greater meaning to me. So a book that has more than 20,000 reviews on Goodreads reached me on a unique personal level.
Lincoln in the Bardo is described as an experimental and supernatural novel and it takes a lot of work to read it. Some sections read like a play and some present actual and fictional historical accounts. Readers will need to think hard about the ideas and setting as well as trust the author to provide a story. Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize and is ranked as one of the best novels of its decade.
I felt rewarded at the finish and if you read it, I hope you do too.
Rick talked about another book in his remarks, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I’ll be reading that soon.
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