Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

May 10, 2017

in Books

As I was browsing through Audible last month, this book caught my attention. It was in my recommended section. I was intrigued by th subject matter and the cast of the audio book.

The description states, " On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace."

As a lover of historical fiction, this description drew me in and made me want to read the book.  The audio book was narrated by a full cast including David Sedaris, Nick Offerman, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bill Hader, Rainn Wilson, Kat Dennings, Don Cheadle and the author himself among many others.

Surely, I thought to myself, I must listen to this audio book or I will be considered less cultured.

After listening to the audio book, I thought maybe this is one of those works of art that is considered important because no one really gets it. I thought this many times in my college career earning a Masters in English and I continue to think it now. If it's confusing but we pretend to "totally be moved and impressed" then somehow we are better than the other people also pretending to understand it because they will believe I'm not pretending.

I read many reviews before I started the audio book and many expressed how overwhelming Lincoln's grief seemed. How moving the book was. How touching. I think they are pretending to get it. Or maybe I need to go back to school.

This story was confusing to me on so many levels. I had to go back and start the book over several times to try to figure out what was going on. And then I finally gave up and agreed to not understand and just continue on to see if I could pick it up somewhere further down the line.
The story line of Willy passing away and Lincoln being distraught with grief is there. But is it overshadowed by the voices of all of the ghosts in the graveyard where Willy is buried and their stories, many of which don't add to the main story line at all. There was one storyline from a ghost that I thought was more heart wrenchingly told than the Lincolns' story though.

I was expecting a story that told me more about Abraham and Willy. Instead, I got a ghost story.

Many of the reviews said that the risks Saunders took with this novel are ground breaking and astounding. I'm 100% for taking risks in writing. I'm 100% for forging new paths. But "he took a huge risk in trying something completely different" actually translates to "I have no idea what is going on here so I'm going to say something that makes me sound smart."

I can't tell you how many times in my studies of literature someone would say this in class, then after class when I asked that student to help me understand the work better they said, "I have no idea what the crap it means. I just tried to say something vague and smart sounding."

Maybe I'm hard hearted. Maybe I needed to read the text instead. Maybe I'm dense. Who knows. But I will say I was confused a lot of the time listening to this book. I had to back track and relisten many times.

I'm not giving this book a bad review. I'm giving it a confusing review. I have ordered a text copy from my local library and I'm going to give the actual text a shot and see if my confusion clears. It would not be the first time that I have been thoroughly confused by a tough piece of literature (Moll Flanders anyone?) and after putting a lot of effort into it, finally coming to an understanding.

I will say this. If you are looking for an easy read, this isn't it.

The following two tabs change content below.
Lindsey Renuard is a blogger, YouTube beauty expert, and the Managing Editor of the Skiatook Journal.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: