Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders focuses on the grief Abraham Lincoln felt when his favorite son William died. He was so grief-stricken that he visited Willie’s tomb and held his body on multiple occasions. Making the death even more unbearable, it happened during the first year of the Civil War.
Many chapters in this novel are a list of quotes from historians and historical sources, making this partly a non-fiction book. Other chapters consist of conversations the dead have with each other, welcoming Willie to their fold and telling their own stories. Some of the characters speak in sentence fragments and incorrect spellings. Swear words are sometimes blanked out and sometimes not depending on who’s talking. Due to the format, you never lose yourself in the novel, always aware that you’re reading a book. I felt the format was gimmicky at first, but I grew to appreciate its uniqueness as I went along.
The non-fiction portions were interesting. Apparently, Lincoln held a lavish party with thousands of guests while his son lay on his sick bed near death. People at the time accused Lincoln of being a dictator and worst president ever. Some accused him of being too lenient as a parent, letting his kids do as they pleased. We get contradictory descriptions of what Lincoln looked like. The horrors of war are highlighted.
There’s a diverse cast of spirits in the cemetery including a man who married a much younger woman, a homosexual, a reverend, a slave holder, a well-spoken slave, a young girl, a widow, a couple foul-mouthed indigents, etc. Angels take different forms to tempt each to move on to the next life. The way the afterlife works is unique and wonderfully weird. The spirits change shape based on what they’re thinking. Different rules apply to child ghosts than adult ghosts. The spirits are able to read Lincoln’s mind and even influence him a bit by jumping into his body, although he also has an effect on them. The judgement of souls seems entirely arbitrary and the damned complain that it’s unfair for them to be punished for doing what they were predisposed to do.
In one section, a ghost marvels that theaters are now lit by gaslight, giving a new level of realism to the actor’s faces, which has to be a sly reference to high definition TV. Lincoln in the Bardo is a very unique book that focuses on the pain of losing a child. By turns, both surreal and heart-breaking.