I’ve been meaning to read this since I read a review of it back when it came out, in 2017. So, six years on, I finally did.
It’s surprisingly slight, given all the fuss and praise. I wasn’t familiar with Saunders before reading that review, but he is famous for his short stories. I’ve read a few of those since — at least one during my MA — and they’re fine, but to my mind tend to suffer from the problem that many short stories have.
I’ve mentioned this here before, though seemingly only once. Often, when I read a short story — even, or perhaps especially, by one of the supposed greats of of the form: Carver, Hemingway, even Chekhov — I’m left thinking, ‘So what? What was the point of writing that, and why did you leave it where you did?’
However, I recognise the skill that it takes to conjure a life, a character, in few words. And Saunders makes good use of that ability here. Because the story is not very much about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not even that much about his son, Willie, who is the one who is actually in the ‘bardo’, a place where souls wait after death in some schools of Buddhism. Rather, it’s about some of the other souls that are trapped in the same Washington graveyard. We get a whole host of compressed backstories.
And we get altogether too many quotes from books and articles about Lincoln and the death of his son. I haven’t investigated to see whether these are from actual Lincoln biographies, histories of the American Civil War, and so on, or they are cleverly invented by Saunders. (This Wikipedia article suggests it’s a mixture.) But I found them much less interesting than the stories of the dead souls. A few would have been fine, for background, but it feels like they make up about half the book.
More stories about the dead, please.