AUDIO: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Review published on January 22, 2018.

While his devastated parents were forced to entertain important guests at an opulent White House function, William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln died on 20th February 1862. He was eleven years old. Mary Todd Lincoln was able to succumb to temporary madness and the isolation of the sickroom following the death of her beloved son, but the tumultuous early days of the Civil War meant that Abraham Lincoln, Willie’s doting father, could not give in to the black cloud of despair that threatened to engulf him. He could only allow himself a single night spent sitting in his son’s tomb, a night spent alternately weeping and talking to Willie’s ghost. Lincoln didn’t know it, but Willie heard his every word, trapped as he was with the other spirits in the bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel by George Saunders, an acknowledged master of the short story format, and it is truly a work of imaginative genius. Told through a plethora of recollections, some long and some short, some real and some fictional, the book relates the story of Abraham Lincoln’s night of mourning as well as Willie’s and the other spirits’ experience in the bardo, that is, the stifling portion of the afterlife inhabited by those who can’t admit their past mistakes and who can’t move on from their previous lives. Over the course of the night, the spirits will have to decide who is ready to move on and who will remain in the cemetery forever, while witnessing Lincoln’s grief for his son will stir up long-buried memories for many of them.

The Reverend Everly Thomas, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III are the three principal spirits who lead the Greek chorus of the dead as they narrate the events of that night and reflect, however unwillingly, on their own pasts. In fact, this audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo is narrated by some 166 voices, both famous and lesser known, with George Saunders himself voicing the good reverend and Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, respectively, portraying Vollman and Bevins. Among the other famous names who contribute to this audio version are Julianne Moore (as Jane Ellis), Susan Sarandon (as Mrs Abigail Blass), Ben Stiller (as Jack Manders), Lena Dunham (as Elise Traynor) and Rainn Wilson (as Percival “Dash” Collier). The use of so many narrators is an innovative and captivating approach to telling the story. There are so many interesting backstories, so many tragedies and so much misplaced hope that loved ones will come to claim them.

The story is based on a grain of historical truth – Abraham Lincoln really did spend a couple of nights in his son’s mausoleum – and Saunders is therefore able to quote from contemporary sources about the Lincoln family’s life and actions during the period in question. In doing so, Saunders exposes just how fallible memories are and how easy it is to misinterpret the intensions and feelings of others. There are so many intriguing details buried in the various narratives, both historical and imagined, that Lincoln in the Bardo is concerned with far more than a grieving father and a son’s desire to remain near his parent. The personalities and manifestations of the various spirits reflect universal truths that are felt as strongly now as they were back in 1862.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a powerful, poignant and frequently comical story built around numerous recollections, records and fantastically well-conceived characters. Its unusual format actually suits the audiobook format very well (hearing the different voices perhaps being more straightforward and engaging than simply reading all the different footnotes) and it makes for a truly excellent listening experience.

Erin Britton 5/5

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Audible Studios for Bloomsbury B01MY6X8MU audiobook Mar 2017

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