Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
A Novel

78%

47 Critic Reviews

It’s a key moment in the novel, in which the political life of the nation blurs into the emotional life of the president, and Saunders uses it to astonishing effect...
-LA Times

Synopsis

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The long-awaited 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

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?

Praise for Lincoln in the Bardo

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“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.”—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 George Saunders

See more books from this Author
George Saunders is the author of Tenth of December; In Persuasion Nation; The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil; Pastoralia; CivilWarLand in Bad Decline; The Braindead Megaphone; and a children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His work appears regularly in the New Yorker, Harper's and GQ. In 2006, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
 
Published February 14, 2017 by Random House. 367 pages
Genres: History, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Literature & Fiction, Horror. Fiction
Bestseller Status:
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Peak Rank on Mar 05 2017
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Weeks as Bestseller
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Critic reviews for Lincoln in the Bardo
All: 47 | Positive: 38 | Negative: 9

Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Sep 24 2016

Two sad strains, the spirits’ stubborn, nostalgic attachment to the world of the living and Lincoln’s monumental sorrow, make up a haunting American ballad that will inspire increased devotion among Saunders’s admirers.

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NY Journal of Books

Good
Reviewed by John L. Murphy PhD on Feb 13 2017

In language reminiscent of James Joyce's inventive interior monologues, and contentious scenes recalling the graveyard bickering of fellow Irish novelist Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille...Lincoln in the Bardo fulfills the promise of Saunders' twisted, inventive, and compassionate short stories.

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Book Reporter

Excellent
Reviewed by Alex Bowditch on Feb 16 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO not only delivers an engrossing story but exceeds expectations, being all at once a hilarious, provocative and tragic meditation on a seminal moment in United States history.

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LA Times

Good
Reviewed by David L. Ulin on Feb 09 2017

It’s a key moment in the novel, in which the political life of the nation blurs into the emotional life of the president, and Saunders uses it to astonishing effect...

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AV Club

Good
Reviewed by Caitlin PenzeyMoog on Feb 13 2017

It serves to transform a historical figure into a real, breathing man, bowed down by grief and unable, for a night, to leave his son’s final resting place.

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The Economist

Good
on Mar 23 2017

This is Mr Saunders’s first novel, but he has been producing prizewinning short fiction for decades...With Donald Trump leading the “party of Lincoln”, values previously considered untouchable are now up for debate, and these themes are in sharper focus than ever.

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The Independent

Excellent
Reviewed by LUCY SCHOLES on Apr 11 2017

I was charmed as I read it, but what I really wanted was to hear it dramatised in all its majestic and spellbinding glory. It’s a rare occasion where I suspect that listening to the audiobook – the full cast of which is apparently an astonishing 166 people – will be a far superior experience to reading the text oneself.

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Christian Science Monitor

Good
Reviewed by Liesl Schillinger on Feb 27 2017

Rarely has a novel about the dead felt so thrillingly, achingly, alive...Saunders takes the portraits off the walls and sets them walking.

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The Maine Edge

Excellent
on Feb 15 2017

Call it postmodern, call it experimental … call it anything you like. Just know this - you have never read a book like this one. And if you do, you will be so very glad that you did.

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The Maine Edge

Excellent
Reviewed by Allen Adams on Feb 15 2017

It all comes back to the genius of Saunders. He has created something here that feels utterly new while somehow keeping one foot in the techniques of the past. Call it postmodern, call it experimental … call it anything you like. Just know this - you have never read a book like this one. And if you do, you will be so very glad that you did.

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NY Times

Above average
Reviewed by COLSON WHITEHEAD on Feb 09 2017

It may take a few pages to get your footing, depending. The more limber won’t be bothered. We’ve had plenty of otherworldly choruses before, from Grover’s Corners to Spoon River, and with so many walking dead in the pop culture nowadays, why not a corresponding increase in the talking dead?

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NY Times

Below average
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani on Feb 06 2017

The supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times — the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning — but their voices gain emotional momentum as the book progresses.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Above average
Reviewed by Michael Magras on Feb 12 2017

As sometimes happens when a short-story writer pens a novel, parts of “Lincoln in the Bardo” go on for too long...But this is an original and devastating novel about the difficulty of rising to life’s toughest challenges...

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Open Letters Monthly

Good
Reviewed by Kenyon Gradert on Mar 01 2017

The book is stronger for refusing to resolve this tension. By coupling what some call “sentimentalism” and “sadism” — more properly called empathy and tragedy — Saunders gives us a novel instead of a sermon, literature instead of political theory.

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The Sydney Morning Herald

Good
Reviewed by Delia Falconer on Feb 25 2017

In Lincoln in the Bardo Saunders steps into the late E L Doctorow's shoes as the teller of his country's collective stories and the visionary of its liberal imagination. Read this brilliant novel and laugh and weep.

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The Columbus Dispatch

Above average
Reviewed by Alan Johnson on Feb 27 2017

Few books are simultaneously entertaining and challenging, but “Lincoln in the Bardo” is one of them.

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Look At OKC

Good
Reviewed by Stephanie Raymond on Apr 16 2017

Saunders creates a scene that is both historical and fantastical, but convincing in the depths of emotion portrayed. Abraham is not depicted in a heroic way; he is simply a grieving father trying to make sense of life and loss.

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The National

Above average
Reviewed by Tod Wodicka on Mar 09 2017

That the novel isn't really about the Civil War, or even so much about Lincoln, was my first disappointment. How I wanted Saunders's voice, after these last few months. The novel operates like a cross between a film script and an oral history...

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Scotsman.com

Above average
Reviewed by STUART KELLY Read more at: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/books/book-review-lincoln-in-the-bardo-by-george-saunders-1-4393571 on Apr 11 2017

Saunders is the old-fashioned avant-garde. This is the acceptable radicalism. I would be disappointed in any reader who failed to enjoy it, and equally annoyed if any reader thinks this is the best we can do – or the most pressing response to a changing world.

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Fantasy Literature

Good
Reviewed by Bill Capossere on Apr 25 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo builds and accumulates, its many small parts — snippets of quotations, brief life-stories, short segments of dialogue/monologue — coming together to convey concisely and often beautifully the individuality of life and the tragic inevitability of its ending, creating a profoundly moving experience. Highly recommended.

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Library Journal

Good
Reviewed by NEAL WYATT on Mar 07 2017

...enables readers to cling to their tales and ride out the events of the evening. In the end, what emerges is a fantastical ghost story, a caper, a meditation on living and dying, and a brief yet somber prose poem about the weight of the Civil War and its holy aims.

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Irish Times

Below average
Reviewed by John Self on Mar 11 2017

In Lincoln in the Bardo people say what they mean, so, despite the highly original conceit, this is the most straightforward fiction he has written. Its looseness means it is easy to read, but it feels attenuated, at 350 pages less weighty than the best of his stories.

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The New Yorker

Above average
Reviewed by Thomas Mallon on Feb 13 2017

Narrative indirection, the time-honored choice, often governs “Lincoln in the Bardo,” as when Saunders clips dozens of different and sometimes contradictory sources to handle Lincoln’s physical description...

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London Evening Standard

Above average
Reviewed by JOHANNA THOMAS-CORR on Mar 02 2017

Saunders forces us to confront the strangeness of our own existence — that we must live knowing that we and everyone we love will die. But his dark imagination is in service of a tender heart...

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The Australian

Good
Reviewed by Tegan Bennett Daylight on Feb 04 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel that will and should be celebrated, and will doubtless win prizes at home and abroad. In any case, you can’t compare Saunders to other writers. He is doing something riskier, more exciting and finally more meaningful. It’s only if you compare Saunders to himself that Lincoln in the Bardo disappoints — just a little.

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My San Antonio

Excellent
Reviewed by Michael Berry on Feb 22 2017

A virtuoso of the short form, Saunders demonstrates that his considerable gifts work just as splendidly on a wider canvas. Sad, funny and wise, “Lincoln in the Bardo” marks a new level of excellence for an author already in ascendance.

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Slant Magazine

Above average
Reviewed by CHUCK BOWEN on Mar 01 2017

Saunders's tricks should theoretically cancel themselves out, collapsing into self-conscious clutter, a cacophony of concept and device, but this book's elements are united by the through line of the author's yearning to break the strictures of his specific point of view.

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Charlotte Observer

Above average
Reviewed by SAM SHAPIRO on Feb 22 2017

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that Saunders is after something far more evocative than historical fiction or “alternative history.”

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Prospect

Above average
Reviewed by Fatema Ahmed on Mar 15 2017

The ambition of the book’s form doesn’t make up for the stretching of its premise: there are too many backstories of ghosts we can’t be expected to care about, and there is not enough plot...Lincoln in the Bardo is a fascinatingly flawed book that is worth reading...

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The Mancunion

Good
Reviewed by Gurnaik Johal on May 07 2017

The novel is unlike anything I’d ever read before and the experimental style is effective. I’d definitely recommend getting a copy...

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Wichita Eagle

Above average
Reviewed by Jim Higgins on Feb 23 2017

In between bardo scenes, Saunders intersperses short quotes from memoirs and contemporary accounts of Willie’s death, President Lincoln’s grief, and how both were viewed by their contemporaries (often harshly). These provide enriching detail and context, but also reinforce the novel’s theme of faulty perception...

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The Mockingbird

Above average
Reviewed by MOCKINGBIRD on Mar 02 2017

What Saunders does so beautifully is create an unadaptable world, one that we can feel emotion about but can’t necessarily picture; it is fingerprints of a place beyond our wildest imaginations.

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National Post arts

Good
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani on Feb 14 2017

In fact, it is Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln – caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were – that powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author’s fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.

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Financial Times

Good
Reviewed by Alex Preston on Mar 03 2017

In a recent New Yorker essay, Saunders wrote that “literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form,” and this love suffuses Lincoln in the Bardo. This is a novel that’s so intimate and human, so profound, that it seems like an act of grace.

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https://www.washingtonpost.com

Above average
Reviewed by Ron Charles on Feb 06 2017

It’s at this point in the novel that Saunders’s deep compassion shines through most clearly. In the darkness of that cemetery, the president realizes as never before that his own grief has already been endured by tens of thousands of fathers and mothers across the country.

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Fantasy Faction

Good
Reviewed by Eric Christensen on Apr 28 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous work of heart, humor (smart and scatological), and hope. Fans of literary fiction will love the deep characterization; genre fans will enjoy the weirder, otherworldly aspects; and I think both camps will be moved with Saunders’s exploration of big ideas and profound emotion.

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https://lareviewofbooks.org

Above average
Reviewed by Matt Sandler on May 22 2017

Its high moral seriousness makes an odd vantage from which to contemplate the grotesquerie of the Trump administration. But this odd and unanticipated historical perspective also makes the novel’s arrival an occasion to wonder...

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https://historicalnovelsociety.org

Excellent
Reviewed by Jeanne Greene on May 01 2017

Painful, raw, and occasionally humorous, Lincoln in the Bardo is an experience rather than a story. Like all good history, it is cautionary as well as informative but never dull, and deserves to be read more than once.

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https://bookmunch.wordpress.com

Good
on Mar 15 2017

There are a lot of things we can tell you, a lot of highlights we are reluctant to share, details best found yourself reading the book. There are complexities here (particularly when it comes to the ways in which Saunders arrays his theology) that you’ll want to mull over when you’re done.

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https://litreactor.com

Above average
Reviewed by KEITH RAWSON on Feb 16 2017

Much like Saunders' satirical forefathers, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, you either love or hate him with very little middle ground in-between. For longtime fans of Saunders, Bardo’s stylistic, absurd prose is a cause for celebration.

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https://www.newsreview.com

Above average
Reviewed by Lucas Sarcona on Mar 16 2017

...Saunders’ radical departure from traditional prose forms is justified, providing a glimpse of a new common truth that gives equal voice to the living and the dead, to the wealthy and the poor, to the past and to the present.

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https://www.newsreview.com

Good
Reviewed by Lucas Sarcona on Mar 16 2017

...Saunders’ radical departure from traditional prose forms is justified, providing a glimpse of a new common truth that gives equal voice to the living and the dead, to the wealthy and the poor, to the past and to the present.

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The Economist

Good
on Mar 23 2017

...this is also an urgently political, profoundly moral book, albeit one so playful and so fantastical that the reader may hardly notice.

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https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk

Above average
Reviewed by Fatema Ahmed on Mar 15 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo is a fascinatingly flawed book that is worth reading, perhaps more so than many perfectly realised but limited successes.

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https://www.americamagazine.org

Above average
Reviewed by John Anderson on Apr 20 2017

In the process, he pulls together a book that is rich in riotous, terrible, spiritually disturbing moments, gathered from both the living and the dead.

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https://www.spectator.co.uk

Excellent
Reviewed by Sam Byers on Apr 11 2017

The result is revelatory. In structure, execution and emotional force, Lincoln is a masterpiece — a tapestry of fact, counterfact and wild, hallucinatory invention.

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https://newhumanist.org.uk

Above average
Reviewed by Alex Christofi on Mar 09 2017

The novel is not, as is being suggested, a masterpiece, but it does reveal Saunders’s many great qualities, not least of which is the hard-won gift of empathy, and his emphasis on the importance of “kind little words, which are of the same blood as great and holy deeds”.

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Reader Rating for Lincoln in the Bardo
66%

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