Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, audio version


In the immediate aftermath of Willie Lincoln’s death, Abraham Lincoln, presiding over both a country and house divided by the Civil War and by his wife’s mental illness, becomes nearly unhinged with grief. He visits his son’s temporary grave in the Carroll Mausoleum at a local cemetery (his body to be taken back to Illinois when the Lincolns, presumably, return after the presidency). This is the second child the Lincolns’ have lost–son Eddie died many years earlier. Son Robert is off at Harvard with a paid substitute fighting in the war in his place. Youngest son Tad, is left with the grieving parents.

While Lincoln’s maniacal grief and his visit to Willie’s tomb are the overt subject of this book, it is really more about society in general and about different views of morality and religion, heaven and hell. The “souls” buried around Willie come to life telling their stories. From the unfortunate man who died about to consummate his marriage, to the sad life of an extremely abused Mulatto girl, to all other types of people in between–this is a story populated with the dead. They tell their stories of living, dying and accepting their death and their decent or ascent into the afterlife.

What I Loved

Regardless of any opinion on the story, this is an extremely creative approach to story telling–especially when done for the audio version. Just as there are numerous characters and quotes from even more sources than characters, each is individually voiced. A quote is read by one one performer, it’s attribution by another. This makes for an extremely engaging performance out of something that could have been very awkward.

Saunders writing is well deserving of its many accolades. The story is vivid to the point of the reader becoming effortlessly immersed in the world of the book. The portrayal of Lincoln’s visit to Willie, of removing his coffin from the tomb and opening it, nearly put me in tears. It was so vividly and emotionally told. The recounting, though occasionally disturbing (and rightfully so in this case) of the lives of slaves and the vehemence of hatred of some of the Southerners really brought the era and war to life. It made me have an even greater distaste in my mouth and ache in my heart for each Confederate flag I see in the course of a day out where I live. It was unsettling–as it should be.

The creativity of the storytelling and the masterful use of language on the whole will earn this book a few major awards, I am sure.

What I Disliked

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9 KJV)


I disliked the story itself, though. Why it was necessary to bludgeon readers with modern day political correctness I do not know. There is nothing new about homosexuality, about discrimination in any form, about rape, about prostitution, about drinking, about drug addiction, about pedophilia. An abundance of the world’s population goes an entire lifetime without any of these touching them (many live out their lives in total ignorance–for good or bad–of any of these things), yet this is the bulk of what the ghosts or souls tell us about. The abundance of profanity used to show differences in class or sexual attitudes was really overwhelming. Profane adjectives and sex talk by ghosts has a very limited appeal to me. I’m sure this was well-intentioned as a way to make the reader feel the same pull of injustice in today’s world as we feel toward the horror of slavery in past times. But it was grossly overdone.


4 Stars

In spite of my own dislikes, I highly recommend it for the originality of the storytelling.


3 thoughts on “Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, audio version

  1. I am completely fascinated by the extent of the audiobook’s production. So many voices; it must have taken an exceptionally long time to put this together! That said, there is nothing about the premise of this story which appeals to me. Your dislike of the story just reinforces that for me. So, while Saunders probably wrote an amazing book, I doubt I’ll experience it.

    Very thoughtful review. I’m glad to see it here!

    Liked by 1 person

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