I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one before. The idea alone immediately had my attention. Essentially, Lincoln in the Bardo is about the passing of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie Lincoln. It takes place in the cemetery where Willie was initially laid to rest, and most of the characters are the ghosts (so to speak) of the others buried in the cemetery. Many of these ghosts have been living in the cemetery, stuck between the real world and whatever afterlife awaits them, for many years. We see quite a fascinating bunch of characters, including a reverend, a racist lieutenant, former servants/slaves, a printer, and of course 11 year old Willie Lincoln.
Interspersed throughout the book, between the fictional conversations had among the cemetery ghosts, Saunders uses bits and piece from historical sources to tell the story of Willie Lincoln’s passing, first hand accounts of having attended the party that took place while Willie was ill, and the response following his death. To me, it just seemed like a brilliant way to tell a story, using so many different sources and voices (both real and fictional). These historical sources are also used to give some insight into the Civil War, happening at the same time. Saunders even gives Abraham Lincoln a voice in the book (fictionalized of course) where we get to read some of his inner dialogue and struggle to not only accept his son’s death, but also warring with himself about the destruction of the nation. While the bits of Lincoln’s thoughts and inner-dialog are obviously just imaginative, it added a lot to the story and was the most heartbreaking part of this book for me.
Lincoln in the Bardo was just so different. The formatting, constantly going back and forth between historical sources or the fictional ghost voices, was a little hard for me to get used to (I found it annoying at first) but I eventually got into the groove, and I’m glad that I did because this book is worth it. If only for the craziness of it.
One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book, was just how Saunders deals with talking about death and the afterlife. Saunders does take on more of a Christian view of the afterlife, at least for the one character who has had a glimpse at life after leaving the grave, but what I found most interesting was the internal struggle these ghosts/souls are having as they basically hang in the balance (or the bardo perhaps) between life and whatever comes after. Many do not seem to know that they have died, and they are waiting for so and so to come and find them, or to exact their revenge on someone. Those that seem to realize, or at least have guessed at their fate, then are stuck with choosing between moving on, or remaining trapped in the cemetery trying to hang on to any semblance of their past life.
So, if you’re looking for something new/different/imaginative/inventive, I would really recommend this book. I was intrigued, yet skeptical at first, but now having finished the book, I’m finding I really quite enjoyed it and greatly appreciate how creative it was.