April Book Club Notes
Whilst we didn’t absolutely love Karen Joy Fowler's Booth, we did find it a fascinating read, opening up an era of history which was new to many of us. It was interesting to think about books we love because they entertain us, and books we love because they inform us – this was certainly the latter. Booth tells the story of John Wilkes Booth who assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, told through the stories of his family. This is historical fiction at its best, depicting pioneer America, and a family immersed in the theatrical world. It slowly builds towards the Civil War, with family loyalties split between the Confederates and Unionists, in the way our own families have been split by Brexit, Scottish unionism and, in America, Trump. Parallels are drawn between marriage (lifelong enslavement), animal rights and slavery, and we look at how stories differ depending on who is telling them. This is a novel jam-packed with fascinating ideas showcasing (in the Trump era) how extremism can lead split families and lead to devastating events
There was a general agreement that the beginning was rather lovely, set in early America as an unconventional family established themselves on a farm in Maryland. The middle was too dense – as if the historical facts got in the way of the storytelling. The end was a page-turner, joining it back to the beginning as we noticed how what had gone before led to the assassination.
We all found it quite hard to keep hold of the time-line, and again there was a call for a cast list at the front of the book. The story is told turn and turn about through the eyes of the siblings. This constant movement between voice, and at the same time through place, made it quite tricky to keep track of where you were. By the end it was very clear to see how the behaviour of one family member can impact on all the others (and indeed on the world). It was also clear that none of us had found any empathy for the rest of the family – Karen Joy Fowler did a great job of making them feel dysfunctional and apart from society.
This was not an easy read. I struggled with the use of present tense throughout – it slowed the reader, and made it hard to zip through. Some of the group had read Fowler’s previous novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (“utterly seductive”), and found Booth disappointing by comparison. I think we all agreed that this wasn’t so much disappointing as quite hard work needing time and concentration. Overall score? 6 – a good informative read, not a feel-good, page turner.
What else did we read? Well, not much – Booth had been all-consuming. The Girl in Hyacinth Blue got more rave reviews. Chris had read By Way of Sorrow, Robin Gigl about a transgender lawyer which she summed up as ‘too much going on in one book, all plot and politics’! Crime and mystery were obviously the choice for the month – perhaps brought on by all the grey and rain we’ve having. Lady’s Well by L J Ross was recommended as ‘light relief, a suave, rich detective with a hint of the occult’, whilst another reader was just starting the wonderful Betrayals by Bridget Collins (old friend of The Bookshop – keep your fingers crossed she comes back this hallowe’en) – a wonderful read. More political was Nick Hayes The Book of Trespass - one of my favourite non-fiction titles – a history of land enclosure in Britain with beautiful illustrations. It is properly political and radical and a brilliant read. We were joined by a visiting reader from Colwyn Bay who particularly recommended Emma Kennedy’s The Tent, The Bucket and Me as a feel-good read.