Book Review

Lincoln in the Bardo


I read this based on professional literary reviews. Seeming across the board, it was touted as unique and creative, brilliant and ground-breaking.  The entire literary intelligentsia wanted to jump on the bandwagon, it seemed.

Was this a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes, whereby reviewers were primed to rave lest they be considered less smart?

Yes and no, I think.

But first, the premise. Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in the course of a single night – the night after Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid one year into the Civil War, was buried. The setting is the cemetery where he was buried. The voices in the book include real life historians whose writings on Lincoln and the war are quoted, and voices of many of the fictional characters who are buried in that cemetery.  These fictional characters with voices are “in the Bardo”, a Buddhist term for the in-between of earth and the hereafter, where souls wait to see if they go to heaven or hell.

My opinion?  The form is truly unique, creative, clever – all the adjectives the reviewers use. The mix of historical fact, which was thoroughly researched, and author imagination is awesome.

The content?  Less awesome. I  loved the parts about Lincoln. They were real and heart-wrenching.  But I’m not quite sure of the purpose of the rest.  Maybe I just didn’t get it?  Maybe, in fact, I am not intellectually astute enough to read more deeply into those other stories.

In naming it a Best Book of February 2017, Amazon editors claim this book “will upend your expectations of what a novel should be.”  The “should” in this sentence bothers me.  Yes, this Lincoln in the Bardo breaks rules.  But does it succeed in a way that satisfies the reader?  Not necessarily.  There were times when I felt that the author got swept up in his game at the expense of the reader, who may want to be enveloped by an emotionally cohesive story.

Do I recommend this to my book group?  Yes.  The discussion of its form alone will be interesting.  And I do think that we readers need to push ourselves at times.

That said, I’m giving this book three stars until I read it again and perhaps feel more.


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