Lincoln in the Bardo, is Saunders’ long awaited first published novel. The book takes a fresh approach to the way stories are told. It is a sort of fiction/screenplay hybrid, where each passage is a quote, written or stated, by the books immense cast of characters (over 160 of them).
The story centers around Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, who died at the young age of 11 from typhoid. It follows his souls journey into the Bardo, a sort of purgatory in the Tibetan tradition. It is the in between state of death and reincarnation. Though I would consider Willie the central character, the people he meets in the Bardo, Vollman, Bevins and the Reverend, for example, amongst all the other souls that dwell there, are at the forefront of the story.
It is incredibly unusual to find a child in the Bardo and the three men, mentioned above, upon finding Willie, try to find a way for the boy to get back to whence he came. Whilst trying to do so, many souls from the Bardo emerge to see the outcome of such an endeavor. It is out of hope that they do this, each of the souls having elaborate stories of their own that Saunders’ draws out meticulously. They too wish to go back to the realm from before (life).
Meanwhile, stricken with grief, Abraham Lincoln himself goes off to the cemetery where Willie was born and holds his dead boy in the crypt. This is said to be a real event and the very inspiration for this novel.
The Bardo takes on a sort of shade of the Earth but when Lincoln comes to the cemetery where they reside during the story it is a truly unprecedented occurrence. The souls of the Bardo must try to band together to make themselves heard to Abraham Lincoln so that he can bring his boy back! This all leads to a well crafted cathartic ending, which I will not spoil here in this review.
Saunders’ work is usually comprised of satire and humorous situations. Lincoln in the Bardo takes on a more solemn atmosphere. There are, still littered through the work every now and then, the amusing antics and disturbing description of character (like a certain character whose “member” is constantly out amongst his many deformities) that is best known of Saunders’ work. Perception becomes scrutinized through the many different souls, and people still alive. That though they may see the same scenario, they may interpret it in a completely different way.
This is a story about the grief of losing loved ones, perception, and letting go amongst many others. It was a tremendous pleasure to read and Saunders’ marvels again with his incredible talent, his name becoming synonymous with genius in the art of letters.