Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders


I confess before this book came along, I had never heard of Saunders. I don’t particularly like to read short stories, so our paths had never crosses. All of a sudden his name is all over the book podcasts I listen to, so I decided to give it a try. At first I looked at the Kindle version, but the publishers put such an obscenely high price on it, I put my name on theĀ  reserve list at the library.

The book was well worth the wait. It is so original I had trouble at first getting into it. It is unlike any other (but one) book I have ever read. Inspired by a story of a visit by Lincoln to his son Willies grave site, Saunders has woven a tale of grief, self-doubt, and redemption using the voices of the ghosts who inhabit the cemetery.

Prevented by their own fears, desires, and reluctance to let go, they remain in the cemetary, observing the people, living and dead who come to the cemetery. The title comes from an Egyptian term for the undecided state of the dead, between life that was and life to come. It’s meant as a temporary holding place for the spirits of the recently deceased, but some of the entities there, against nature, have been there for years.

The one book this reminds me of is C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. He uses the same device, although not to the same extent, to tell the story of people who are reluctant to face their own death and who are so wrapped up in themselves they are unwilling or unable to help anyone else.

This book lives up to all its hype. It’s hard to read at first, and the reader has to pay attention. The story is not all neatly and nicely laid out, but instead, the reader has to do some work of filling in the blanks. It is worth the work and very rewarding. One of the best books I’ve read this year.