I had no idea what I was getting in to when I started this book. I thought it was an historical novel about the American Civil War. I guess I wasn't completely wrong, but I definitely wasn't right either. This is one of the most unique books I have ever read. It took my almost 60 pages to truly understand what was going on. Once I understood, I couldn't put it down.
Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie Lincoln. Willie died when he was a child, and the book is the story of President Lincoln visiting his son's body after his death. The book takes place in "the bardo" -- a place between life and death where Willie can watch his father visiting his body, but cannot communicate with him.
It's a bizarre concept, but the story has resonated with people. Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize and was optioned for a film almost immediately after it was published.
Lincoln in the Bardo could be hard to follow at times because of the style of writing and the format of the book. There were no quotations marks to show when someone was speaking, and several chapters throughout the book contained excerpts from historical non-fiction works to contextualize what President Lincoln was going through and the circumstances of his son's death.
As a reader, I had to be extremely focused while reading this book, which meant that it took me a while to finish it. There were a few moments when I felt frustrated that it was so difficult to follow, but once I understood the flow of the book it was more enjoyable.
I found this book to be strangely beautiful. The characters, who are all dead, have all manifested in the bardo in strange ways that reflect the lives they've left behind. One dead woman who left behind three daughters is followed around everywhere by three orbs that represent her daughters. She watches the things they are experiencing in life, but she can't make any kind of contact with them to help. It was a strange, upsetting image, but also a beautiful one - one that demonstrate the enduring nature of love.
Lincoln in the Bardo also paints President Lincoln in a light that he has never been painted in before. In this story he is not a President or a leader, but rather a grieving father. It isn't until the end that the Civil War and his Presidency become important, and even then it is only in the context of the death of his son.
I have to give George Saunders extreme credit for thinking up this incredibly unique idea. It was a beautiful way to pay tribute to a man - and President - who changed the course of history. It was also a moving tribute to a boy who died within the context of war and rebellion.
I'm not sure that there are any books similar enough to this one that I can make recommendations for similar reads. This book is too unique to even try to compare it to anything else I have ever read. But I will say this: if you like history or just want to try something new, I would definitely recommend this book.