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25 Jul 2022

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Long-standing fans of Karen Joy Fowler will remember with fondness the twisty literary novel that became a New York Times bestseller, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. In Booth, we hear another family story, though this one uses no tricks and is much greater in scope.



The scope can be seen in the page length – almost 500 – and in the years covered and miles travelled in the story, and also in the phenomenal task Fowler has given herself: to tell a story already known, at least in part. This is not We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: it’s unfussy historical fiction, but all that scope provides so much room for the reader to love this book and I did, hugely.

When I was a child, my friends and I listened insatiably to an audiobook of short ghost stories. Thinking about some of them still gives me shivers. One of the stories was about a man called John Wilkes Booth. I can’t remember much of the watered-down children’s retelling, but I remember the theatre, Booth, Lincoln. I imagine that there are a great number of ways you could tell the story of Booth, and a lot of them wouldn’t be very good. But Fowler’s new book isn’t about John Wilkes Booth, this is a book about America, across a century of hardships, and zooming in, it’s about a specific American family, with many eccentricities, but also many typical traits of a large American family in the 1800s. Largely poor, with moments of fortune; industrious but adrift on a sea of alcoholism; white and complicit in the horrors of slavery; and ultimately, beset by the complications, hurts and joys that come with being a family unit – bound together, even if not often geographically.

This is a sweeping novel that never loses the reader, even as it traversers characters, landscapes, and the bulk of the civil war. I found Fowler’s pacing excellent. It’s a long book that lingers on many defining eras of the Booth family: their rural life of hardship, snow, trees, and the many whims of actor and head-of-the-house Junius Booth; city life in Baltimore with thugs, drink, and theatre at the forefront; the arrival and devastating departures of more Booths; perilous travel across the states. It’s a captivating story told with rich detail and a careful hand. Even toward the end, at the book’s climax, the terrible event that we know must unfold in the lives of not just this family but all American’s, Fowler maintains both the steady pace carried through the novel, so as not to rush this – the greatest of tragedies (for the Booths and the Lincolns) – but also, great care at telling a story that could easily have become falsely black-and-white, too simplistic (a hero and villain). I was right with the Booth siblings as they discovered the unthinkable had befallen their family and here the previous 400 pages is earned: Fowler has taken such care to tell this story – at times, embellishing when facts ran dry – the story of siblings.

Lengthy, expansive historical fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Booth is worth a try. Fowler is a master storyteller and I found Booth unputdownable. From gritty American alleyways to the family hearth to the dazzle of Shakespearean theatre, Booth was a joy to read.