A novel of grief, love, and moving on.
At the end of 2017/beginning of 2018, I made a very bold statement. I was going to write a blog post every week starting with a review of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
It’s October 2020 and this is my first blog post in two years.
ANYWAY, Bardo is an incredibly ambitious work of fiction. It’s written as a series of monologues and short conversations among ghosts in a graveyard. Interspersed within the ghosts are chapters of first hand accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, from the Civil War to his actual appearance. Apparently people thought he was pretty ugly.
The main crux of the story involves Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died at age 12 (or 11, I can’t do math). On the night of the funeral, he appears in the graveyard which wreaks havoc among the spirits as it causes them to begin to move on from the bardo. The bardo is the space between life and rebirth where the ghosts are stuck.
The audiobook is truly the best way to experience this book. There are over 150 different narrators including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, George Saunders, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Keegan Micheal-Key, Mindy Kaling, Rainn Wilson, and so many more. Saunders’ kids and wife also have speaking roles which I think is pretty cool. With how the book is written, there are 166 narrators so each voice is played by a different person. It’s a full cast narration is the best way.
I absolutely adored this book. As I said in my Favorite Books of 2017 post, it was my second favorite book of the year. Looking back on in almost three years later, it’s truly one of the best books I have ever read. Saunders tackles grief in a way that is true to life and devastating. Lincoln’s monologue at Willie’s grave still gets me teary eyed. It was the only time I ever rewound an audiobook to listen to a certain passage multiple times. It’s one of the only books I still think about years after I read it. Usually, I finish a book, set it down, and never think of it unless someone asks about it. Bardo keeps haunting (ha) me.
Shortly after my 2017 post, my grandmother died. Bardo had been on my mind constantly since I read it. This book helped immensely in how I was able to process my grief. I turned to Lincoln’s speech and re-read it over and over: “Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss? As before? A parade passes. He can’t rise and join. Am I to run after it, take my place, lift knees high, raise a flag, blow a horn? Was he dear or not? Then let me be happy no more.” How was I to continue on as if life was normal, that nothing had changed?
One passage in particular helped me understand, which is what I will leave you with.
What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain… We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Book image from Amazon