On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.
Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil. It is a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.
In One Line
George Saunders’s first novel spins a gloriously imaginative portrait of human grief and the afterlife as Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his son.
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Many admirers of George Saunders’s inimitable short story collections like Tenth of December probably have despaired of this supremely talented, empathetic writer ever producing a novel. But with the publication of Lincoln in the Bardo, the wait is over, and we have a story of loss and grief that’s extraordinary in both substance and style. The “bardo” is, in Tibetan Buddhism, the transitional state between death and rebirth. In Saunders’s novel, it has a tangible location: Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, February 1862, shortly after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, age 11, from typhoid fever.
Over the course of an extended evening, the novel recounts the anguished visits of the grief-stricken president to the mausoleum containing his son’s body. These rendezvous occur in anything but solitude. Instead, they’re intently observed by an audience of spirits, whose alternating chorus of voices supplies most of the novel’s distinctive, drama-style narrative as they recognize, in the words of one of them, the “vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” And as if the premature death of his son weren’t enough, the Lincoln of Saunders’s novel, still in the first year of his presidency, must endure virulent attacks on his fitness for office. In stark contrast to the descriptions of the phantasmagoric events at Oak Hill are the chapters containing fragments of contemporary and historical writing about Lincoln.
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo unquestionably requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Once accomplished, it’s easy and most rewarding to surrender to the spellbinding power of this captivating novel.
–Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented.
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review
“A masterpiece.”—Zadie Smith
“Ingenious . . . Saunders—well on his way toward becoming a twenty-first-century Twain—crafts an American patchwork of love and loss, giving shape to our foundational sorrows.”—Vogue
“Saunders is the most humane American writer working today.”—Harper’s Magazine
“The novel beats with a present-day urgency—a nation at war with itself, the unbearable grief of a father who has lost a child, and a howling congregation of ghosts, as divided in death as in life, unwilling to move on.”—Vanity Fair
“A brilliant, Buddhist reimagining of an American story of great loss and great love.”—Elle
“Wildly imaginative”—Marie Claire
“Mesmerizing . . . Dantesque . . . A haunting American ballad.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Exhilarating . . . Ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read, except that the grotesque humor, pathos, and, ultimately, human kindness at its core mark it as a work that could come only from Saunders.”—The National