If you are like me, the first thing that came to mind when you read the title of this book was where or what in the heck is the bardo? This is not explained anywhere in the novel itself, but the dust jacket tells us that, according to Tibetan tradition, the bardo is a transitional state following death, similar to purgatory. Those readers with book copies missing the jacket just have to Google it to find out, I guess.
Saunders uses as his jumping off place for the novel the historical fact that Abraham Lincoln several times visited the crypt of his son Willie, who died less than a year after the beginning of the Civil War. The President's deep grief is touchingly depicted, along with his awareness that other parents are likewise afflicted as their sons die in bloody battles. However, Lincoln's part of the novel is by no means the primary focus. Rather, the main of the book concerns the spirits of the dead in the cemetery who are not yet willing to "pass over," so to speak. The life stories of this large cast of ghostly characters are gradually revealed through their conversations. Some display behavior that is bizarre; some are quarrelsome; some have tragic histories. The overall tone is humorous, strangely enough.
This is a very clever book. If you ask me, it is too clever. I generally dislike novels which seem to be written solely to display the cleverness of the author. George Saunders is a critic's darling right now, and this book has received glowing reviews. It has already been longlisted for England's Booker Prize and is being mentioned as a Pulitzer contender. I can't agree. I was entertained, but to me the novel lacks substance.