Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler has ruined the next few books for me – whatever I pick up next, it can’t possibly measure up to the sprawling, ambitious, captivating saga of her latest novel, Booth. Fowler is the bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and The Jane Austen Bookclub, and this time around, she’s tackling a real-life event – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Told from the viewpoints of multiple Booth siblings, the book traces their lives through an idyllic but chaotic childhood into adulthood and the aftermath of the assassination of a beloved American president by their beloved brother. The assassination is especially shocking when you realise John Wilkes was the ‘golden child’ who grew up in a family that believed all men should be free. In fact his grandfather was part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape the South (although it must be said, the family also had slaves growing up – the Booths were nothing if not contradictory). The Booths were raised in the shadow of their very famous father, Junius Brutus Booth, a stage actor of great acclaim (so famous even Walt Whitman was honouring him in poetry years after his death).

Booth is bookended by huge tragedy, opening with the deaths of four of John Wilkes’ siblings, and ending with Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Throughout the book, bite-sized chunks offer an historical context for the American Civil War, as well as glimpses into Lincoln’s life. As war breaks out, families are broken apart; men are prepared to go to their deaths to preserve or disband slavery; and social mores prevent the Booth women from having any kind of influence, while John Wilkes is ever more marginalised. The politics, racism and culture wars in the book bear a striking resemblance to the rise of extreme partisanship that is currently happening today. But while there is great tragedy in this book, there is great beauty too. And the writing is superb. Expect to see this book on all the prize lists in the coming year – it is outstanding!

Gabrielle Williams is the manager of the Readings Prizes.

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Karen Joy Fowler

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