I went into this not entirely sure what to expect, as George Saunders has proven himself to be an "expect the unexpected" kind of writer. So it was with increasing delight--although in some ways that's not the right word--that I found myself in an insanely creative piece of writing, one that includes all kinds of magical realism, but at the same time, is firmly grounded in love and loss and grief and how we all-too-human beings blunder through our lives and, according to Saunders, our deaths.
Just the concept alone is eyebrow-raising: It's rooted in the true story of the untimely death of Lincoln's son Willie, who died of typhoid as a child. Leaping off that fact, Saunders creates a Tibetan bardo in the cemetery where Willie is entombed, a bardo full of beings who no longer belong on earth, yet haven't gone anywhere else. And, for the most part, most of them don't seem to understand what's happened.
Into this peculiar world comes the grieving Mr. Lincoln late at night, wanting only to visit his son's body and wishing with all his heart that he could bring him back. Given that Willie died in 1862, the Civil War also rests heavily on the president's mind, along with the fact that thousands of young people are dying because of this war, and thus parents everywhere are suffering as he is on this night.
To say any more would be to give spoilers. But I was intensely moved by the depiction of loss and grief, and yet there are parts that are funny and bawdy, and mystical and crazy. There are wonderful characters, including a stodgy minister, a highly profane couple, and any number of opinionated, argumentative people who are as annoying after death as they are in life. Which is to say: Very entertaining, so much so that I became fond of them, and then worried about them as the book hurtled towards its conclusion.
The book's format deserves mention as well. It took some time to gain momentum, as the entire book is comprised of statements from various people. Some (most, I think?) are fictional characters, but there are occasionally quotations from books by historians and scholars, including Doris Kearns Goodwin. So there are pages and pages of single sentences or short paragraphs, each properly attributed. Once I got into the rhythm of it, I flew along, but I have to wonder how well this plays out in the audio version. There are over 100 characters, and if I understand correctly, the book is read by over 100 people, all of whom end each speech with the notation from the book ("In 'Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,' by Elizabeth Keckley"; "Keckley, op. cit."; "Hans Vollman"). This might be one easier to read first, then listen.
And very likely worth rereading at some point.