I was thrilled to receive a copy of ‘Booth’ to review, as it was one of my most anticipated books for this year. I’m delighted to say that this novel certainly lives up the hype. ‘Booth’ is a masterpiece!
An epic novel about the infamous and ill-fated Booths, a family of thespians, drinkers and dreamers divided by the issue of their day, one that is tearing the US nation in two.
One Booth will go on to commit a terrible and violent act that will change history.
Let me introduce you to the main players in Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel… Firstly, there is Junius, the eccentric patriarch of the family, and a celebrated Shakespearean actor at the head of an acting dynasty. There’s a whole novel in just the father’s life – a committed vegetarian and drunk, who left England fleeing bigamy charges, Junius is both a mesmerising talent and a man of terrifying instability. He and his wife bring up their children on a remote farmstead in 1830s rural Baltimore, as the country draws ever closer to the boiling point of secession.
Six of the Booth siblings survive to adulthood. We meet Rosalie, the Booth of whom least is recorded on account of her being female, quiet and, in her later life, disabled. Fowler creates a sympathetic character for Rosalie, a wise and empathetic woman, who observes so much and yet simply gets dragged from pillar to post in the wings of her siblings’ more auspicious lives. It is Rosalie who informs us about the tragic death of some of the earlier children, and it is Rosalie who does not forget them.
The third key-player here is Edwin, who was sent to keep an eye on his father on his acting tours, and went on to become hugely famous in his own right. To him, John Wilkes is very much second fiddle, and I applaud Fowler for taking this stance. You’ll hear about ‘Booth’ being a fictional biography of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s a novel that ties together the story of his family, most of whom are so much more fascinating, and arguably more famous to their contemporaries, than he was. It shows us how he committed his crime despite his upbringing, despite his family’s beliefs, and maybe because he never enjoyed quite the same success as his father and brother.
Historians may be disappointed that this novel does not give a detailed account of Lincoln’s politics, and the assassination, rather that these are treated as background details, settings for this ill-fated family. Their stories have been told in countless museums and history books, and their stories are easily learnt. I congratulate Karen Joy Fowler for taking the limelight away from Johnny and back onto the family as a whole, which are beautifully outlined in this 469 page epic. Don’t be put off by the length, though – I can assure you that it’s a real page-turner from start to finish. Normally put off by the sight of a tome, I was simply pleased that there was so much of this novel to enjoy.
I don’t think that I’ve read of a family quite like the Booths, and I was only surprised that I didn’t know more about them already. Although the material may have been sitting there waiting to be written about, Fowler’s own research is evident throughout this novel, and made it a thoroughly good read for this fan of both Shakespeare and True Crime. For me though, this is a novel about family – it’s celebrations, griefs, loyalty and fallings out – and it is this element that will most appeal to readers.
Thank you so miuch to Serpent’s Tail for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review. ‘Booth’ will be published on 3rd March 2022