Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; Random House, 2017. 343 pages; $17.00 (paperback); reading level: adult.

Set in February of 1862, in a very real cemetery where the very real body of Willie Lincoln has just been placed in a borrowed crypt by his bereaved father, the first character we meet is a very unreal ghost, killed (though none of the ghosts in the book will admit to being dead) by a freak accident just before he was able to consummate his marriage. The ghosts and President Lincoln (who twice visits the crypt late at night in order to hold his dead son’s body) are stuck in the “bardo,” a Tibetan Buddhist term for the place between death and whatever comes next. The ghosts are trapped by their self-absorption, telling, “bellowing their stories,” unable to let go of earthly events left unresolved when they died and move beyond the bardo; Lincoln is trapped by his crippling grief, unable to get back to the business of leading his country through a particularly bloody war. The structure of the story (a collage of quotes from historical and fictional sources and disjointed bits of narration) is as weird as the ghosts who inhabit it. But through the weirdness, Saunders portrays various layers of grief – from the particular to the universal to the transcendent – and something wonderful emerges: the truth that while human relationships are nothing more than “two passing temporarinesses” who develop “feelings for one another” those very relationships have a healing, sustaining power. The book is, by turns, somber, humorous, wrenching, slapstick, revealing, ridiculous, and finally (though the author remains coy about what the hereafter actually holds) hopeful.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

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