George Saunders has won myriad awards for his short stories, and so perhaps it is no wonder that this, his first novel, was so highly anticipated.
Set in 1862, the American Civil War is ongoing, Abraham Lincoln is president, and his eleven-year-old son, Willie is ill. The boy dies and is laid to rest. This is all fact, as is the documented knowledge that Lincoln went back to the crypt alone several times to visit his son. Saunders uses real history and then intertwines it with his fiction to create this novel.
Willie Lincoln is trapped in the bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist term for the transitional state following death. Within the cemetery he encounters other ghosts who have resided in this state for varying amounts of time. His main companions are three men: Hans Vollman, a former printer who died on the day he was to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; Roger Bevins iii, who killed himself after being rejected by his lover, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who knows more than the others about where they are and what comes next. They make it their mission to move Willie onto the next place, knowing that children who remain in the bardo are eventually consumed by it.
Outside of the bardo we also have historical reports on Abraham Lincoln himself. Criticism of his actions (the Lincolns decided not to cancel a party that was held while Willie was ill) at home and politically as the numbers slain in the war rose has put great stress on him. Young Willie clings to the bardo because he hopes that his father will come back again, and the mission of the main trio of ghosts becomes to convince the elder Lincoln, with whom they cannot converse, to release his son.
This is not set out on the page like a usual novel. Saunders writes out his prose as first hand accounts of the various characters, when characters converse there are no speech marks, though it is never clear how they actually communicate, and the ‘ghosts’ can possess one another and feel each other’s thoughts, though they don’t often do this. Saunders’ techniques add to the effect of this being a mystical plane, removed from life on earth but within grasp of it. Most of the ‘ghosts’ don’t even realise that they are dead, referring to their coffins as sick-boxes, and wondering when they may return home. Of course, there is much humour woven throughout (a book about death could in other hands become quite depressing!) and, without giving too much away, many of the characters are grotesque either in personality or appearance.
This is a brilliant book, everything that I would have expected from Saunders from my knowledge of his short stories.