Saturday 25 February 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: Booth, Karen Joy Fowler (2022)

I imagine that many American readers will come to Karen Joy Fowler’s 2022 novel, Booth, with preconceptions about John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). However, having grown up outside the US, my knowledge of the killer and the theatrical family he was part of was essentially nonexistent before I sat down to read this latest book in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, about novels set in the nineteenth century but penned in the twenty-first.

Booth is one of those novels where we know what the climax will be—Lincoln will die. Suspense comes instead from anticipating the emotional and practical responses of the rest of the Booth family to John’s actions. We move between three of his nine siblings’ points of view in the novel, jumping from the mind of invalid and put-upon Rosalie to famous actor Edwin to beautiful and fiery Asia. This isn’t a book about a murderer—it’s a book about how a murderer’s actions affect those who love him most, so I was unsurprised to read in Fowler’s author’s note that she was partially inspired to write the book by considering the position of modern mass shooters’ families. 

The real-life Booths are wonderful fodder for a novel. In addition to John’s assassination of Lincoln, parental bigamy, alcoholism, daring and dangerous journeys across the United States, theatrical productions galore, and a stock of other juicy rumors were all at Fowler’s disposal when she sat down to write this book. If she’d made all this up some reviewers would have called Fowler’s novel farfetched but all the craziest details about the Booths are true, meaning, especially later in the book, there is, at times, too much incident. I would have liked some breathing room to give the characters even more page space to react and reflect.

Lovers of Shakespeare will enjoy how much Fowler makes of the importance of the bard to the Booth family culture and may also be intrigued by the altered versions of his famous plays most performed during the nineteenth-century. I also liked learning about other popular plays from the time period, and the history of costuming (the fact that actors owned their own expensive costumes for different roles was fascinating!). 

Coming back to the preconceived ideas readers may have about the Booths, Fowler handles the topic of slavery very deftly. Without lecturing, the novel explores how and why the siblings ended up with opposing ideas about abolition, and the divisions created by birth order, age gaps, and very different childhood experiences in a large family rang particularly true. This is the story of the Booth siblings, but secondary characters, including the family’s Black servants who are trying to buy the freedom of their children still trapped in slavery, give us an even broader perspective on the macro-forces at work in the country during this era. 

What novel would you like to see my review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Like what you read? Sign up to my email newsletter for monthly updates on my writing and blogging. 

No comments:

Post a Comment