Book Review: “11.22.63”

My fangirl adoration for Stephen King is well documented. That’s not to say I have given every book of his a five star rating. It is true that most of the ones I have read, I have loved. Some I have only liked. And there are some I haven’t read at all.

Although King has a reputation as a horror writer, quite a lot of his books are not horror at all. His ability to tell a good story transcends all genres. 11.22.63 is not in any way a horror novel – as a time travel story, if it falls under any category at all, I would call it science fiction. But it’s far and away the best novel he’s written in many years. In fact, I’d say it’s the best Stephen King novel since NEEDFUL THINGS.

One of the things I always thought stood out about Stephen King’s writing is his ability to take an ordinary, flawed, perfectly realistic character and study how they are tested when they suddenly find themselves in an extraordinary situation. The “everyman” in 11.22.63 is Jake Epping, a thirty-something schoolteacher, divorced from an alcoholic wife and though a perfectly nice guy there’s nothing remotely remarkable about him.

Then one day the owner of the local diner, Al Templeton, lets Jake into a secret. There’s a wormhole to the past in the back of the diner. Al tells Jake three important things about the wormhole. First, it always brings you out in the same place and the same point in time: a morning in September in 1958. Second, no matter how long you spend in the past, you come back into the present two minutes after you left. Third, should you go back through the wormhole again, everything resets itself and the changes you have instigated are erased.

Al has spent four years in the past, with an obsessive mission to prevent the assassination of JF Kennedy. He is convinced that if Kennedy lives, the Vietnam War won’t happen and the world will be a better place. But he’s dying of cancer and he won’t live long enough to get to 22 November 1963, and so he has returned to the present, and has tasked Jake to do this for him. Jake is young, fit and single, and a chain of events eventually lead Jake to believe that he has no option but to take on Al’s mission – return to the past and prevent the assassination of Kennedy.

Everyone who’s read Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” – or even seen “Back to the Future” – knows that changing the past, no matter how trivial, always has an effect on the future and not always for the better. “The past is obdurate”, Al tells Jake and he soon learns just how true that is. Changing the past affects the present, and the past resists change. The bigger the change, the more obstacles get in Jake’s way – mechanical failures, traffic accidents, stomach bugs and various other events all happen at the most inconvenient times possible. And it’s not just the assassination of Kennedy that Jake tries to prevent – since he has knowledge of the future, he tries to fix a few other things that went wrong in the past, too.

The journey that Jake undertakes changes him, and the man he is at the end of the novel is very different from the man he is at the beginning. And although I kept on thinking through the novel that there had to be one of two possible endings, since we live in a time when Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, and Stephen King doesn’t deal in alternative realities. Either Jake fails in his mission, or after succeeding he has to go back in the past for some reason and it resets iself. I then found myself trying to predict what that reason might be. But the ending came as a complete surprise, proving that even after all these years, King is still master of the ‘twist’ ending.

Anyone who’s a Stephen King fan will love this book. If you’ve never read Stephen King because you’re not a fan of horror, then I suggest you start with this one. It’s not scary, but it’s a thrilling ride and even though it’s a very long novel, you’ll be turning the pages to find out what happens next.

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