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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Book Review. Spoiler: DNF!!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Book Review. Spoiler: DNF!!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Book Review. Spoiler: DNF!!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Book Review. Spoiler: DNF!!Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
on February 2nd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction, Literary fiction
Pages: 343
Buy on The Book Depository

The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

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.

The premise certainly is intriguing and the widespread acclaim encouraging. Yet I could not finish this book!

DNF books quote

Set over the span of one night in a Georgetown cemetery in 1862, President Lincoln visits the crypt alone where he had earlier that day laid his eleven-year-old son Willie to rest. As Lincoln, stricken with grief, cradles the body, ghosts linger and provide running commentary on the scene before them.

Willie Lincoln joins these ghosts that are trapped in the bardo, a transitional realm. The young ones are not supposed to stay, the ghosts lament. It is only natural that they move on. But the boy remains grounded, for his father promised he would return, and a battle ensues over the soul of little Willie Lincoln.


Lincoln in the Bardo is presented in a unconventional format. The story is told primarily through dialogue, as the ghosts banter and bicker back and forth, reading almost like a play. And every so often we are given excerpts from historical texts (some real, some imagined, I believe) that give an outsider’s perspective of the experience of Lincoln and his family at this time.


With themes of loss and grief and life after death, this fictionalised account of a true historical event was one I had expected to enjoy.

The experimental format did not bother me; the prose was easy to read and the pages turned quickly. Despite the large cast of characters lending their voice to the narrative, they were easily distinguished and their individual voices distinct.

I did find the historical reports mildly interesting, and these short passages were a welcome respite from the cemetery scenes.

Truth be told, this story was just plain boring. I persisted to the 40% mark and even then, there was no plot of interest, no characters I cared for, and no lingering questions that made me want to continue to find out what happens.

I was completely disconnected from the characters, and scenes that should have evoked some emotion, for example Abraham Lincoln grieving over the loss of his son, fell flat.

So unfortunately, this was not the book for me.


I do acknowledge there are certain limitations in reviewing a book that was not completely read, but I also believe my limited opinions are valuable nonetheless.

There have been many glowing reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo and I am in the minority with this one. If you have been considering reading this book, please don’t base your decision not to on my review alone!

I’d recommend watching Jennifer’s review (Insert Literary Pun Here on YouTube) for an opinion different to mine!


This book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and given I strongly disliked the 2016 winner (The Sellout by Paul Beatty, see why here!), it just may come out on top!

You can see the rest of the books on the 2017 shortlist here.


Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Let’s discuss in the comments below.

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Hi! I'm Julia, a lifelong reader, an aspiring writer, medical doctor, and now book blogger, from Queensland, Australia! Go to 'About Read and Live Well' to learn more!

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