Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

January 30, 2018 | Winner of the Booker 2017. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury RRP$29.99 (available in all formats)


It was a conversation George Saunders had with his wife’s cousin that inspired the award winning novel LINCOLN IN THE BARDO. Did he know that on the day Abraham Lincoln buried his son Willie, he returned to the crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown to hold his son once more? This nugget of information stayed with Saunders and spurred him to conduct extensive research on Lincoln and the Civil War. Saunders has said he was scared to write this story, he didn’t think he could do it.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is a novel with a huge cast of over 160 characters. It has an unusual format in that historic material, such as parts of letters and entries in official documents, is included as part of the narrative and combined with the fictional story. The attributions can be distracting (especially on the ebook version) but the mind soon adjusts to the play like structure of the book and it is well worth perseverance.

Unfolding over a single night, this is a story about the ‘in-between’, sometimes referred to by Tibetans as The Bardo, the place between heaven and earth populated by ghosts who have not yet moved on spiritually. These ghosts, disfigured by desires they had but failed to act on when they were alive, appear to think they are not dead but residing in a hospital yard to recuperate in ‘sick boxes’.

When Willie Lincoln appears amongst them, they are surprised that he lingers. Children do not hang about for long before moving on, and there are dire consequences for resisting. Soon stone tendrils are seeking to encase the boy and keep him trapped between forever. His presence challenges the fragile balance of those remaining as they race to save his soul.

This is a story told in three parts. I have many favourite moments, including the scene where the angels arrive in the graveyard, the memory of Judgement as described by the Reverend and the final action sequence that left me cheering.

In the novel, characters describe the moment a soul moves on as a ‘matterlightblooming phenomenon’. This, to me, is  an accurate description of the book; incandescent, wild, zany and emotional, strange and uninhibited in imagination, laced with grief, human and otherworldly. A phenomenal work of fiction. For all his fears, George Saunders LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is a genius work and well deserving of the Booker prize it won in 2017. It is an unforgettable read that is slated to become a movie that will no doubt be a smash hit.

Highly recommended.



George Saunders is the author of nine books, including the No. 1  New York Times bestselling novel Lincoln in the Bardo and the short story collection Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short-story collection). He has received MacArthur and Guggen­heim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

You can find out more about George Saunders on his website


© 2015 Melissa Sargent