Booth by Karen Joy Fowler review – background to an assassination

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

The Booth family tombstone in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, is, as Karen Joy Fowler describes it in this epic novel about the distinguished 19th-century American theatrical clan, “a marble obelisk … almost twenty feet high”. Like that obelisk, the Booth name still casts a long shadow over the US landscape: today we remember the family chiefly because one of its sons, John Wilkes Booth, was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

Everyone knows the story. It’s 14 April 1865. The civil war is effectively over, and Lincoln is at the theatre, watching a play, when he is shot in the head by one of the actors, who has climbed into his box and pulled out a pistol. Lincoln dies the following morning. Booth goes on the run but is hunted down and killed 13 days later. The nation is plunged into despair; this presidential death – the first such assassination in US history – will leave a lasting scar.

What’s past is prologue: the rest of the novel both is, and isn’t, a build-up to that moment. How to deal with the narrative problem of John Wilkes and this inevitable climax is (as Fowler acknowledges in the author’s note) there on nearly every page. She handles it adroitly, interweaving Booth’s story with that of his parents and siblings, a tale that’s colourful and tragic enough in its own right. This isn’t Fowler’s first try at capturing the fraught dynamics of the family, of course: it follows 2013’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, her novel about an extraordinary experiment in adoption. That book, which has a narrative shock in store for the reader partway through, probes familial bonds and the nature of love in an “ordinary” American nuclear family.

The Booth family story begins with Junius Brutus Booth, the celebrated Shakespearean actor, who flees charges of bigamy in England in 1821 with Mary Ann Holmes, a Drury Lane flower seller (no spoilers here: we’re in the realm of history). Their 10 children are born in near penury on a remote farm in rural Maryland. Lavishly talented, terrifyingly unstable and a committed vegetarian, Junius is the source of much comedy, some of it benignly culinary (“Suddenly Father, who once thought it murder to eat an oyster, has decided they should all be eating fish. None of the children like fish, so this is nothing to celebrate”). And some less so: when his old friend Andrew Jackson becomes president and they disagree, Junius threatens to cut Jackson’s throat. Later we remember that detail.

Stories, like families, are largely about feeling, and this novel gives us feeling on a grand scale

This is a century dominated by men. Four of the Booth children die in infancy; of Junius’s surviving sons, Junius Jr, Edwin and John all follow him on to the stage. His daughters – sad, dutiful Rosalie, haunted by the apparitions of her lost siblings, and temperamental Asia, who will grow up to become the family chronicler – know that they don’t count. Rosalie “never wanted to be the centre of a story, not even her own”. John, on the other hand, who is a Confederate sympathiser, isn’t content to be an observer. He “has always had this need to be in the story”. What’s more, he has “Father’s madness without Father’s genius to excuse it”. His sense of destiny is also fuelled by a dangerous family myth: when he was a baby, his mother saw a special future for him in the flames of the parlour fire. As a grown man he shows off by quoting Macbeth: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Did the real John Booth ever say this? He was an actor; he might well have.

Booth’s sheer heft and scope – at nearly 500 pages, it spans a century – suggest that Fowler’s interest lies as much in the mythopoetic potential of the family epic itself as in a particular set of historical events. History may claim to be about facts, but stories, like families, are largely about feeling, and the novel gives us feeling on a grand scale, even as it asks pertinent and topical questions about who owns those facts. For Booth actually contains two family stories: that of the Booths, and that of the Halls, the slaves who live on their property.

Related: Karen Joy Fowler: ‘I’m a bossy writer; I’m not going to not tell you’

Joe and Ann Hall have been owned by the Booths and their neighbours for most of their lives and have seen their own children routinely sold to other households. That the anguish of this other parallel story is largely invisible to the Booths perhaps treats the material more eloquently than another approach could have. The novel is haunted not just by the ghosts of the Booth dead, but of the Hall children who are lost to the living death of slavery. When the Halls manage to buy back one of their daughters, Ann’s only visible sign of emotion is her refusal to let the child out of her sight. She’s not a trained actor but she performs her part, of pretending that all of this is normal, better than any Booth could: they “could take acting lessons from her (and probably any other slave in the South as well)”. Ann’s agony and her relief at having her daughter restored to her are all the more powerful because they are unspoken.

As these family stories converge with the wider national narrative in America’s traumatic civil war – in which the question of individual states’ control over the slave system was central – we realise that they’ve never been distinct at all (“We cannot escape history,” Lincoln said). It’s a pity, then, that after so much bravura storytelling the last part of the book sometimes reads like a curt historical precis, as if Fowler has finally been overwhelmed by the weight of her material – or perhaps the simple and entirely creditable desire not to misrepresent it. But this hardly matters. In its stretch and imaginative depth, Booth has an utterly seductive authority. Fowler has pulled off that supremely difficult thing in a historical novel: to convince us that there are things she may have made up, but which are nevertheless true.

• Elizabeth Lowry’s novel The Chosen is published in April by Riverrun. Booth by Karen Joy Fowler is published by Serpent’s Tail (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.