Lincoln in the Bardo

A Novel
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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE

The “devastatingly moving” (Peoplefirst novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

Named One of Pastes Best Novels of the Decade • Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, USA Today, and Maureen Corrigan, NPR • One of Time’s Ten Best Novels of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book • One of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of the Year

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo
 is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“A masterpiece.”Zadie Smith

Praise

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“Grief guts us all, but rarely has it been elucidated with such nuance and brilliance as in Saunders’s Civil War phantasmagoria. Heartrending yet somehow hilarious, Saunders’s zinger of an allegory holds a mirror to our perilous current moment.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“An extended national ghost story . . . As anyone who knows Saunders’s work would expect, his first novel is a strikingly original production.”The Washington Post

“Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln . . . attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Profound, funny and vital . . . the work of a great writer.”Chicago Tribune

“Heartbreaking and hilarious . . . For all its divine comedy, Lincoln in the Bardo is also deep and moving.”USA Today

“Along with the wonderfully bizarre, empathy abounds in Lincoln in the Bardo.”—Time

“There are moments that are almost transcendentally beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl.”—NPR

Lincoln in the Bardo is part historical novel, part carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year.”Financial Times

“A masterpiece.”Zadie Smith

“Ingenious . . . Saunders—well on his way toward becoming a twenty-first-century Twain—crafts an American patchwork of love and loss, giving shape to our foundational sorrows.”Vogue

“Saunders is the most humane American writer working today.”—Harper’s Magazine

“The novel beats with a present-day urgency—a nation at war with itself, the unbearable grief of a father who has lost a child, and a howling congregation of ghosts, as divided in death as in life, unwilling to move on.”Vanity Fair

“A brilliant, Buddhist reimagining of an American story of great loss and great love . . . Saunders has written an unsentimental novel of Shakespearean proportions, gorgeously stuffed with tragic characters, bawdy humor, terrifying visions, throat-catching tenderness, and a galloping narrative, all twined around the luminous cord connecting a father and son and backlit by a nation engulfed in fire.”—Elle

“Wildly imaginative.”—Marie Claire

“Mesmerizing . . . Dantesque . . . A haunting American ballad.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Exhilarating . . . Ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read, except that the grotesque humor, pathos, and, ultimately, human kindness at its core mark it as a work that could come only from Saunders.”—The National

Excerpt

 
XXI.
 
Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:

We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.

Then let out a sob

Dear Father crying    That was hard to see    And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.

Saying all this to the worm!    How I wished him to say it to me    And to feel his eyes on me    So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me And in I went It was no bother at all    Say, it felt all right   Like I somewhat belonged in

In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father

And could know exactly what he was

Could feel the way his long legs lay     How it is to have a beard      Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to—

It has done me good.


I believe it has.


It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.

Then Father touched his head to mine.

Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.

willie lincoln

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