Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
This first novel from the acclaimed short story writer (Tenth of December) has been adapted into a cinematic (and potentially record-setting) audiobook that pushes the current boundaries of the format. The story takes place early in the Civil War over the course of one night in 1862. Though the Lincolns' son Willie has been laid to rest, his spirit lingers in the cemetery where his father pays a final visit. Saunders alternates between scene-setting historical and scholarly quotes (some fabricated) and the observations of the cemetery's longtime inhabitants, many of whom suffer Dantean torments. Into the endlessly repetitive existence of those caught between life and death come a catalyzing Willie and Lincoln himself, who departs with a better understanding of the intimate tragedies that soldiers' families suffer. Featuring 166 narrators, including stars such as Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Megan Mullally, and Keegan-Michael Key, as well as the author himself, the audio presentation brings a chorus of voices to raucous, guilty, fearful, and complicated life. -Verdict Recommended for all collections. ["A stunningly powerful work...this remarkable work of historical fiction gives an intimate view of 19th-century fears and mores through the voices of the bardo's denizens": LJ 10/1/16 starred review of the Random hc.]-Anna Mickelsen, Springfield City Lib., MA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
It takes a full six minutes at the end of this unforgettable audio production to read the cast list of 166 actors: comedian Nick Offerman, author David Sedaris, Hollywood A-listers Carrie Brownstein, Don Cheadle, Lena Dunham, Bill Hader, Miranda July, Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, and Jeffrey Tambor, and others. The main challenge of Saunders's Civil War-era novel is fragmentation. In addition to the plethora of characters to keep straight, the novel features several challenging elements of postmodern fiction: punctuationless sentences, a constantly shifting perspective, and a mélange of factual snippets and boldly fabricated sources. The effect, however, is a wonder brought to life in these performances. Sedaris steals the show as Mr. Bevins, a wry and lonely spirit who tarries in the titular bardo, mourning the lover who left him. Two other performances deserve special mention: Kirby Heyborne, a veteran audiobook narrator, more than holds his own in this star-studded cast, breaking listeners' hearts with his quiet and sensitive portrayal of Mr. Lincoln's recently deceased boy Willie. And one of the book's best performances belongs to Saunders himself, who plays the Reverend Thomas, a timid man of the cloth who is haunted by sin-but what sin, however, he doesn't know. If fiction lovers listen to just one audiobook in 2017-or ever-it should be this one. A Random House hardcover. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Even though Saunders (Tenth of December, 2013), the much-heralded author of distinctively inventive short stories, anchors his first novel to a historical moment the death of President Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, in February 1862 this is most emphatically not a conventional work of historical fiction. The surreal action takes place in a cemetery, and most of the expressive, hectic characters are dead, caught in the bardo, the mysterious transitional state following death and preceding rebirth, heaven, or hell. Their vivid narration resembles a play, or a prose variation on Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (1915), as they tell their stories, which range from the gleefully ribald to the tragic in tales embodying the dire conflicts underlying the then-raging Civil War. On pages laddered with brilliantly curated quotes from books and historical documents (most actual, some concocted), Saunders cannily sets the stage for Lincoln's true-life, late-night visits to the crypt, where he cradles his son's body scenes of epic sorrow turned grotesque by the morphing spirits' frantic reactions. Saunders creates a provocative dissonance between his exceptionally compassionate insights into the human condition and Lincoln's personal and presidential crises and this macabre carnival of the dead, a wild and wily improvisation on the bardo that mirrors, by turns, the ambience of Hieronymus Bosch and Tim Burton. A boldly imagined, exquisitely sensitive, sharply funny, and utterly unnerving historical and metaphysical drama. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The buzz is loud and will continue to be so when literary star Saunders goes on a national author tour supported by an all-platform media blitz.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2016 Booklist
Kirkus Book Review
Short-story virtuoso Saunders' (Tenth of December, 2013, etc.) first novel is an exhilarating change of pace. The bardo is a key concept of Tibetan Buddhism: a middle, or liminal, spiritual landscape where we are sent between physical lives. It's also a fitting master metaphor for Saunders' first novel, which is about suspension: historical, personal, familial, and otherwise. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president, sort of, although he is not yet dead. Rather, he is in a despair so deep it cannot be called mere mourning over his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862. Saunders deftly interweaves historical accounts with his own fragmentary, multivoiced narration as young Willie is visited in the netherworld by his father, who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, at least temporarily. But the sneaky brilliance of the book is in the way Saunders uses these encountersnot so much to excavate an individual's sense of loss as to connect it to a more national state of disarray. 1862, after all, was the height of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from assured. Lincoln was widely seen as being out of his depth, "a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis." Among Saunders' most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that "the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest." This is a hard truth, insisting that brutality now might save lives later, and it gives this novel a bitter moral edge. For those familiar with Saunders' astonishing short fiction, such complexity is hardly unexpected, although this book is a departure for him stylistically and formally; longer, yes, but also more of a collage, a convocation of voices that overlap and argue, enlarging the scope of the narrative. It is also ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us. Lincoln, after all, has become a shade now, like all the ghosts who populate this book. "Strange, isn't it?" one character reflects. "To have dedicated one's life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one's life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one's labors utterly forgotten?" With this book, Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.