By Stephen King
Published by Hoddor & Stoughton, 2011, 740 pages.
Stephen King’s recent output has been rather variable, from the patchy, yet in places brilliant short story collection, Full Dark No Stars to the journey he took us on in his last novel Under The Dome, an enjoyable trip but with a disappointing end to the ride.
The premise for his latest behemoth (although at only 740 pages it’s relatively short by King’s standards) sounds fairly simple and on the face of it rather uninspiring. A time travel story, this tale explores what would happen if you had the chance to, as Cher once said “turn back time” and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 11/22/63.
Jake Epping gets that opportunity when Al the owner of a local diner reveals a secret, a tragedy and an opportunity all in one strange meeting. Al reveals the presence of a “portal” (the mechanics of the time travel are left vague and why not?) which can transport you back to 1958 and his plans to prevent the assassination. It’s now up to Jake to take on Al’s mantle and finish the task.
That’s the books main premise and although a nice idea it’s actually only a very small part of what makes this book special. This is a story about personal sacrifice, heroism, duty, politics, patriotism but most of all it’s a book about love.
King builds a world in which real life historical figures intermingle with some of the strongest fictional characters he has ever created and considering character creation is one of his great strengths that’s a fantastic achievement. The bulk of the action takes place in late 50’s early 60’s America, a place technologically and culturally a million years from today’s society.
King avoids wallowing in the golden glow of nostalgia. This is a period when racism, bigotry, sexism and poverty meant a less than cosy existence for many. It’s a beautifully illuminated era though and it’s the small details which really breathe life into this world and consequently the book.
The main quest is a relatively simple one but in King’s hands the characters are tested both emotionally and physically, indeed most of the “horror” (this isn’t so much a horror story as a book with horrific incidents) is based on this emotional turmoil and it’s often devastating physical consequences.
The book starts off quite slowly but the pacing is excellently controlled. The world building and character creation work beautifully to gradually draw the reader into the time period and when the action then escalates the reader is pulled along as the juggernaut races to its terrifying (and unpredictable) conclusion.
Unlike Under The Dome the ending does not disappoint, indeed the poignancy of the ending may be the book’s strongest point and really does demonstrate how that simple premise could lead to much more complex consequences.
In short 11.22.63 is a magnificent novel which will appeal to King fans but also to those outwith his normal readership. The politics and historical truth may be open to debate (he largely dismisses the conspiracy theories) but the strength of King’s writing is not. This book is his best since The Green Mile in 1996 and may well be among his top five up there with the likes of It, Salem’s Lot and The Stand. With 11.22.63 King demonstrates that he is a master at the top of his game.
Rating 5 out of 5