I picked up Lincoln in the Bardo after my mom mentioned her book club was going to be reading it as part of their rotation. I was intrigued by the concept of the bardo, which is a Tibetan term for the Buddhist “intermediate state” between death and rebirth when the soul is not connected to a body. As used in this novel, the idea is that everyone spends some time in the bardo after they die but some end up lingering for a very long time because they either choose to remain in this in-between state out of fear of what comes next or are perhaps unable to make the transition. Children, especially, are not meant to linger in the bardo after they die.
The story revolves around the events leading up to and after the death of President Lincoln’s son, Willie. Willie doesn’t realize that he has passed away and instead vehemently believes that he need only wait for his father to come back for him and so he ends up lingering in the bardo. During his time there, the reader is introduced to numerous other characters, who are also in the bardro, and a few key characters who try and convince Willie that he is indeed dead and needs to pass on from this crypt where he was interred. Willie’s decision to linger is not helped by the returning presence of his grieving father, who seeks to mourn the loss of his son in private in the crypt.
The style of this novel is unlike anything I have read to-date. Rather than being the standard text-filled pages, Saunders uses snippets of historical documents to portray the events of Willie’s illness and death, the grief of the Lincolns’ after he passes and the challenges already facing the President given the Civil War is a year old. While there are a few fictional historical snippets to move the plot, Saunders did conduct extensive research on Lincoln’s life during this time frame. Many of those chapters in the book transport the reader and create the sense that one is living in that time and experiencing the event as if reading the newspapers of yore.
The scenes that take place in the bardo are told from various 1st person views by the multitude of characters existing in the bardo. At first, I had to adjust my mind to reading what felt like pages of pure conversation and lightning-fast transitions between characters but soon the pages flew by as I was captivated by the storyline. Many times, I found that I had to put the book down in order to process the storyline a bit and to have a breather from the rollicking pace and raw nature of some of the characters. 368 pages never felt so fast!
I believe that this novel can have many interpretations. To me, it is really about grief and the pain felt by the living who have lost those they love, the passing of the soul after death, fear of the unknown, faith (or lack thereof) and rebirth. What I appreciate most about this novel is not only the hard work the author put in to create an authentic historical feel to the setting and the characters but that the novel leaves so much open to interpretation. Saunders does not end the story by telling a morality tale of what one should believe happens after death but rather creates an interesting allegory based on a true historical event to help readers ponder these inevitable questions. Worth a read on your own or a great choice for a lively book club session.
PS: 15 books to go on my 21 Books to Read before 35….I’m about midway through “The World According to Garp” and can’t wait to write my review for that novel! A little over 2 months left to complete this challenge so I will be trying to limit distractions caused by all the other lovely titles on my “to read” shelf….
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