Holy shit. This book. THIS BOOK! Lincoln in the Bardo just might be my favorite book of 2017 thus far.
The story takes place in the space of one night in 1862, a year after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s son Willie, dead from typhoid fever, has just been buried in a cemetery in Georgetown. Lincoln, heartbroken over the death of his son, visits Willie’s tomb throughout the night and takes his son’s body out of the coffin so he that might see and hold him once more. He mourns his son, all the while carrying the knowledge and weight of all the deaths accumulating on the battlefields of the war.
Told by a chorus of graveyard inhabitants, and other voices of the period, Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike any other book I’ve read. The graveyard ensemble inhabits this Bardo (a Tibetan concept/word for a “transitional state”), where they welcome new arrivals like Willie, long for the lives they’ve left behind, mourn those they loved and lost, make friends, squabble, and linger with the souls interned around them. At the beginning I thought, is he really going to pull narrative structure off? And yes, he does. George Saunders has managed, brilliantly, to write a book about history, death, and letting go, that is hilarious, strange, and poignant, and that celebrates the smells, tastes, desires, and emotions of life. Bravo.