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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel Paperback – Feb. 6 2018
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The “devastatingly moving” (People) 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
Named One of Paste’s Best Novels of the Decade • Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, USA Today, and Maureen Corrigan, NPR • One of Time’s Ten Best Novels of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book • One of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of the Year
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review
“A masterpiece.”—Zadie Smith
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“Grief guts us all, but rarely has it been elucidated with such nuance and brilliance as in Saunders’s Civil War phantasmagoria. Heartrending yet somehow hilarious, Saunders’s zinger of an allegory holds a mirror to our perilous current moment.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“An extended national ghost story . . . As anyone who knows Saunders’s work would expect, his first novel is a strikingly original production.”—The Washington Post
“Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln . . . attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Profound, funny and vital . . . the work of a great writer.”—Chicago Tribune
“Heartbreaking and hilarious . . . For all its divine comedy, Lincoln in the Bardo is also deep and moving.”—USA Today
“Along with the wonderfully bizarre, empathy abounds in Lincoln in the Bardo.”—Time
“There are moments that are almost transcendentally beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl.”—NPR
“Lincoln in the Bardo is part historical novel, part carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year.”—Financial Times
“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 . . . Saunders has written an unsentimental novel of Shakespearean proportions, gorgeously stuffed with tragic characters, bawdy humor, terrifying visions, throat-catching tenderness, and a galloping narrative, all twined around the luminous cord connecting a father and son and backlit by a nation engulfed in fire.”—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
About the Author
- Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (Feb. 6 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0812985400
- ISBN-13 : 978-0812985405
- Item weight : 336 g
- Dimensions : 13.97 x 2.03 x 20.96 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #14,031 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from Canada
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I have been meaning to pick this book since November 2017 and I have the physical copy on my shelves since August 2019. I borrowed the audiobook around 16 times before actually reading this. All in all, to say that this was a book I was apprehensive about would be an understatement. I was expecting this mediation on loss and grief which would only help making me depressed too - what I got was something that did talk about grief but also about grace, moving on and life’s absolute absurdity and our delusions - both internal and external.
The first thing that struck me was how funny this was - some parts are comedic and entertaining (especially the main three narrators in the Bardo) but even the constant historical excerpts about the Lincolns made me grin. In the space of a page, the President was accused of being a bad father, a good father, indifferent and grief stricken. We never got to hear from him directly - there was always a distance between us and the reader - either through the ghosts or the “historical” texts. That struck me as I felt that the author was pointing out the futility of ever knowing someone - especially in terms of knowing someone’s history and the fallacy of making conclusions of intent. (Not all the excerpts are from the real books which makes one question what is actually ‘read’ and ‘false’. It kept me on my toes and sent me down a google rabbit hole periodically - so cool).
The audiobook was fantastic - fully narrated which added an immediacy to some of the longer passages. I did also follow along the narration with a book which was the right mix for me. This novel works more like a play with the character’s direct dialogue but the ability to go back and re-read the print quickly or pause and focus on the ridiculous titles of the “historical” texts was interesting.
There are passages which the spelling is archaic or not correct (e.g:
“Begins, I’ll piss a line of toxic in yr wretched twin wristcuts Groping you by ye clubsick, Vollman, I’ll slag you into the black fence.” )
which reflects a state of mind of the ghost which the audio narrator doesn’t fully get across. However, the audio reflect class differences through accent and cadence so clearly that I honestly think this book should both be read and listened to simultaneously.
You can also see Mr Saunders’ short story background play out here. A lot of the ghosts' dialogue worked like little vignettes, some were poignantly funny and some were sad. And some fluctuated back and forth.
In the end, I loved the surrealness of the book - I was reminded of Lost Gods which was also set in purgatory. And despite the fact that the latter book had more violence and literal gods / monsters, this was more atmospheric and weird. This book didn’t really explain what was happening but just asked you as a reader to gamely follow along.
I loved this book - I had 9 pages of thoughts on this! Definitely worth getting the audiobook and giving this a try. I agree with the Guardian which called this book “a performance of great formal daring. It perhaps won’t be to everyone’s taste, but minor missteps aside it stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction .
Just don't wait for 3 year before picking this up.
Combining the historical research with the process and product of their fertile imaginations, they then melded stories into novels with unorthodox narrative structures. They are by far not the first to develop structures for their novels that deviate from the traditional linear and chronological format. Sometimes such experimentation works brilliantly, sometimes not so well.
In any novel, it takes a while for us readers to figure out what’s happening, who the characters are, and how they are interacting. Unorthodox structures can make a novel a particularly challenging read especially in the initial stages. In “All the Light We Cannot See,” Doerr flips back and forth in time and runs multiple storylines in parallel. In “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Saunders intersperses direct historical quotations with the dialogue of characters and he places the whole novel’s text in stand-alone statements explicitly attributed to specific characters, historic or imagined.
The provocative structure of “Lincoln in the Bardo” has defeated more than one reader that I know who have given up on the book, finding it just too confusing … and that’s quite apart from the fantastical depiction of purgatory-dwelling spirits interacting with living human beings in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln comes to mourn the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie.
The lives from childhood to early adulthood of Marie-Laure and Werner are told in alternating chapters in “All the Light We Cannot See” and it takes a while to figure that out. The challenges for the reader are compounded by many of the fourteen sections of the book each made up of multiple chapters being arranged in non-chronological order: 1944, 1934, 1944, 1940, 1944, 1941, 1944, 1942, 1944, 1944, 1944, 1945, 1974, 2014.
So, Doerr and Saunders are challenging our imagination as readers not only to engage with the characters that they have created but also to do so through complex organizational structures.
Are they successful in challenging us yet keeping us reading until the end?
The more unorthodox of the two was the one to which I responded more enthusiastically. I was totally perplexed initially when I started “Lincoln in the Bardo” but I was hooked once I figured out what was going on and how the structure and even the page layout contributed to the evolution of the story. Saunders has crafted a story of immense metaphorical complexity and heart-rending poignancy. I loved it.
I appreciate the beauty of the writing in “All the Light We Cannot See” and the tough yet tender WWII story that Doerr tells. The structure was somewhat problematic for me at the start but I got over that difficulty relatively easily. What I didn’t get was being grabbed in the heart and the intellect. My imagination was provoked but coasted relatively dormant through 530 pages.
I’m glad that I’ve read both of them but it is Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo” that I’m raving about to friends.
Top reviews from other countries
To address one other point made about this book in reviews, it is not a difficult or challenging read. It takes a little bit of time at the start to tune in to it, but once you understand how the author is telling his tale, it is a very easy and enjoyable read.
This is the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son Willie. It is told by two different sets of voices. Firstly, the actually events around Willie's death are told in a series of snippets from contemporary observers. In telling his story in this way, author George Saunders comments on the unreliability of history, and on the changing perceptions of great historical figures. The Lincoln of this book is at the start if the Civil War and deeply unpopular in some quarters. To some observers his relationship with his son is deeply moving, to others he is a cold and callous father.
The second set of voices is what sets this book apart. They are spirits, ghosts, the undead, remaining on earth in some form of limbo (in some schools of Buddhism, Bardo is a transitional state between death and rebirth) invisible to the living. Chief among these spirits are a churchman, a printer who died before he could consummate his marriage to his younger wife, and a gay man who committed suicide.
The spirits, seemingly unaware that they are dead, referring to their coffins as sick boxes, seek to protect Willie from a form of death, referred to by the citizens of the realm as "matterlightblooming" and from the more malicious inhabitants of their netherworld. They also hope to re-establish a connection between Willie and his father in the hope that he can return to the normal world as a precursor to their also doing so.
In portraying Lincoln's grief at the death of his son, the book is deeply moving, but given that it's primary subject is death, it is surprisingly light, and often genuinely humorous. Alongside Lincoln's grief, Saunders depicts the doubts which wrack him as a leader taking his country into war. He is forced to understand his own grief at a time when his decisions will inevitably lead to other deaths and other parents being similarly bereaved.
The other great theme is, unsurprisingly for the period, that of slavery and relationships between European and African Americans. Oppression and conflict continue into the twilight world, although the ultimate suggestion of where Lincoln obtained his final resolve to fight the war to its end is astonishing.
Also in the graveyard are many other spirits who live in the Bardo which is considered in some schools of Buddhism to be an intermediate state between death and rebirth. The 3 main voices are the spirits are a reverend, a printer who died before he could consummate his marriage to his younger wife, and a gay man who committed suicide, and the book is written almost like a script. As well as the narrative from the voices, the book is interspersed with historical writings of the time, describing the events as they unfolded (I'm not clear if these are true quotations as there is no bibliography but I assume they are!) Other themes include racism (even after death the coloured people don't interact with the white people) and slavery
I really enjoyed the book - it took a few pages to get used to the format but I found it a quick read and as with many other historical based novels I have read, it has made me want to read more about Lincoln At times I found some of the interaction between the 3 main voices quite amusing and this innovative style of writing will stay with me I think.