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.
I was concerned about the "terrifying" aspect, because I'm not into thrillers. I was, however, intrigued by the "hilarious" aspect, and also the fact that many reviewers talked about laughing out loud one minute and crying the next. I'm all for emotional roller coasters. I decided to give the book a try.
Lincoln in the Bardo is...weird. The narrative is told from various perspectives. Some chapters are composed of eye-witness accounts (some real, some fictitious) of Abraham Lincoln and his White House, and of Willie, his illness, death, and funeral. Most of the chapters are told from the perspective of the various ghosts inhabiting Willie's cemetery. Willie himself (in ghost-form) gives some input, and we even hear the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln through the ghosts who inhabit his body when he goes to visit.
The story is as much about these other people/ghosts as it is about Abe and Willie--probably even more so--although Willie plays an important, if inadvertent, role in their lives...or afterlives. The ghosts lead seemingly mundane existences and are oblivious to (or in denial of) the fact they are dead. It took me a while to start to empathize with the three main narrator-ghosts, but eventually I became quite enthralled with them and their own struggles. By the time the book ended, I wished there were more.
As to the laughing, crying, and terror, I didn't experience any of them. There were some very touching moments, especially surrounding Willie's death, but none that made me cry (and I cry pretty easily). There were also some pretty funny parts that made me chuckle internally, but nothing that made me laugh out loud. As for terror...no. This is a supernatural story, but not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination. The ghosts aren't necessarily all friendly, but none of them are dangerous or scary. The book might keep you up at night due to heavy thought, but not due to horror (and I say that as someone with a pretty extreme fear of death).
Despite taking a while to get used to, Lincoln in the Bardo is a fairly quick read. It's also thought-provoking and remarkably heavy for also being remarkably light. Like I said, it's weird, but in a satisfying way. If you're looking for something a little different, it's definitely worth a read.