Originally published: 17 March 2022
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Published by: Serpent’s Tail
Page count: 480
Reading dates: 4-10 March 2022
SIX BROTHERS AND SISTERS. ONE INJUSTICE THAT WILL SHATTER THEIR BOND FOREVER
Junius is the patriarch, a celebrated Shakespearean actor who fled bigamy charges in England, both a mesmerising talent and a man of terrifying instability. As his children grow up in a remote farmstead in 1830s rural Baltimore, the country draws ever closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.
Of the six Booth siblings who survive to adulthood, each has their own dreams they must fight to realise – but it is Johnny who makes the terrible decision that will change the course of history – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Booth is a riveting novel focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family.
I’m guessing the name John Wilkes Booth is a recognisable name in the United States but I had never heard of him or the Booth family before picking up this book. And this is why I love historical fiction because it teaches me about events that otherwise I would know nothing about! In Booth, Karen Joy Fowler introduces us to the Booth family through 3 of the Booth children who in turn tell their own stories as well as their families.
Junius Booth is a famous English Shakespearian actor who is often absent from the farm where the family live, while he performs. Rosalie is the eldest daughter and it is her viewpoint we hear first – we hear about life on the farm, her dead siblings and the effect their deaths have on their mother Mary. Rosalie is tormented by the ghosts of these lost children but is a loving surrogate mother to her younger siblings, especially Edwin and Asia.
Edwin’s is the second sibling we follow. He is a sensitive child who is sent as a teenager to be a chaperone for his father as his drinking starts to effect his work. He eventually follows in his father’s footsteps as a Shakespearian actor, travelling around the world to perform. During his part of the book the siblings are shocked to discover their father is married to another woman and in fact their mother is his mistress and they fled England in order to be together. Eventually they divorce and he finally marries Mary but the discovery is a scandal that rocks them all.
Finally we hear from Asia who at 17 is the first to learn of their fathers death. She is closest to her younger brother John whom she adores. She is also keen to write a biography of her father wanting to honour his legacy. She is my favourite sibling – she doesn’t suffer anyone who she doesn’t like and her thoughts kept me entertained! Throughout the book we return to the siblings in turn as events unfold.
I loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when I read it back in 2015 and was keen to read Booth. Booth is a dense read and there is a huge amount of detail to take in and at times I have to admit I found my mind wondering and I couldn’t say I was really enjoying it. I certainly preferred hearing from the females of the family. But despite this, I feel it is an astonishing piece of research. Although based on facts that are well documented, Fowler uses her imagination to fill in the gaps, especially with Rosalie who is least famous member of the family. I really felt like I was immersed in this period of American history of which I knew little – I have read a few books based around slavery (Conjure Women and The Underground Railroad are two that come to mind) but I was still shocked by some of what I learnt here. My knowledge of the American Civil War was sketchy at best and I found the lead up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln tense. The aftermath of John’s actions and the effects they had on the family for me were what pulled the book together.
In the end I gave this 4 stars on Goodreads – I think the book as a whole was a remarkable achievement and I am so glad I read it. I’m sure it will be a book I will remember for many years to come. I was supposed to be seeing Fowler at an event this week which has been sadly cancelled as I would love to have heard her talk about this.
Many thanks to Flora at Serpent’s Tail for sending me both a proof copy.
About the author:
Karen Joy Fowler is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels and three short story collections. Her 2004 novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and was a New York Times Notable Book. Fowler’s previous novel, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Her debut novel, Sarah Canary, won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian, was listed for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize as well as the Bay Area Book Reviewers Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book. Fowler’s short story collection Black Glass won the World Fantasy Award in 1999, and her collection What I Didn’t See won the World Fantasy Award in 2011. Her most recent novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Her new novel Booth will publish in March 2022.
She is the co-founder of the Otherwise Award and the current president of the Clarion Foundation (also known as Clarion San Diego). Fowler and her husband, who have two grown children and seven grandchildren, live in Santa Cruz, California. Fowler also supports a chimp named Caesar who lives at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone.
Website – https://www.karenjoyfowler.com/