Booth by Karen Joy Fowler was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and is a piece of historical fiction about the family of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot dead Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Fowler has deliberately ensured that Booth and Lincoln’s assassination are not the focus here, and instead turns to the background of his relatives spanning a whole century. His English father, Junius, was a bigamist and a celebrated Shakespearean actor who had 10 children with Mary Ann Holmes in rural Maryland after he abandoned his first wife. Fowler is certainly a versatile author – ‘Booth’ is about as different as it gets from the modern setting of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which was shortlisted for the Prize in 2014 – but I’m not too surprised her latest novel didn’t make the shortlist which was announced earlier this month. While the parallels with contemporary events are interesting, the plot went off on too many tangents which didn’t really go anywhere. ‘Booth’ may also appeal to those who have more knowledge of 19th century American history than I do.
I immediately sought out a copy of Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait after reading her latest novel I’m Sorry You Feel That Way in July. Set on a fictional remote Scottish Hebridean island, John Baird murders his wife Katrina, and their son and baby daughter. Their younger son, Tommy, is the sole survivor and he returns to the island many years later. In concise and understated prose, Wait builds a tense and melancholic atmosphere in the tight-knit community still affected by the traumatic events which took place all those years ago. The residents’ excruciating attempts at small talk with Tommy are well observed in scenes reminiscent of the funeral set piece in ‘I’m Sorry You Feel That Way’. ‘Our Fathers’ is a subtle exploration of toxic masculinity where an inability to express emotions boils over into unspeakable violence.
The Appeal by Janice Hallett is a murder mystery told through email correspondence and text messages between the cast of an amateur theatre group called the Fairway Players. Law students, Femi and Charlotte, are tasked with sifting through the documents in order to prove that one of Roderick Tanner QC’s clients has been wrongly imprisoned for the murder of one of the cast members. Set during rehearsals for a production of ‘All My Sons’, it emerges that a crowdfunding appeal for the director’s granddaughter’s cancer treatment causes tension among the original group and a couple of newcomers. The epistolary format forces the reader to read between the lines for clues regarding the motives of the characters and if they really are who they say they are through their correspondence. It is a novel that requires a fair amount of effort on the part of the reader, given the increasingly complex plot and large cast of characters with 15 suspects, of which Issy is the most memorable. However, concentrating on who’s who at the beginning definitely pays off and the conclusion is cleverly done.
Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe is a diverse collection of the New Yorker journalist’s long-form pieces concerning “true stories of grifters, killers, rebels and crooks” according to the subtitle. These include a German wine collector accused of forgery, the sister of a notorious Dutch gangster who turned him in to the police, a Harvard-educated neurologist who shot dead six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama, and profiles of Mark Burnett who created the TV series The Apprentice and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. This is the third book by Radden Keefe I’ve read so far this year, following his account of the Sackler family Empire of Pain and the Orwell Prize-winning Say Nothing. As pieces of investigative journalism, the articles are provocative and entertaining and explored many subjects I probably wouldn’t have come across anywhere else.