Booth

Karen Joy Fowler. Putnam, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-0-593-33143-9

The Booth in the title of Booker-shortlisted Fowler’s razor-sharp latest (after We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) is John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The author approaches “Johnny” obliquely, through his family circle in Maryland. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, is a Shakespearean actor whose masterly Richard III and “towering genius” are offset by episodes of “mad freaks.” (He’s also a drunken failure of a father.) Cycles of depression triggered by Junius’s endless indiscretions and prolonged absences define Booth’s mother. Three siblings in this theatrical family are central: eldest sister Rosalie is “painfully shy” and has scoliosis; brother Edwin, like Junius a “star” actor, is prone to drink; and beautiful sister Asia is “strong and stormy,” “ice and iron.” Others, such as the Halls—a Black family, some of whom are free and others enslaved—also play parts. All illuminate the depressingly bizarre rearing of Johnny and the disgruntled, attention-seeking actor he becomes. As Congress passes the 13th amendment to abolish slavery and General Lee surrenders, Booth’s acting career falters and his Southern sympathies rise, building toward the fateful night that will forever define him and his family. Fowler sets the stage in remarkable prose, and in her account of the Booth family’s move from rural Maryland to Baltimore in 1846 (“Instead of frogs, choruses of drunks sing on the street after dark. Instead of birdcalls, factory whistles”), she subtly conveys the depth of her characters, noting that Johnny, at seven, takes on the “city name” Wilkes. Throughout, the nuanced plot is both historically rigorous and richly imagined. This is a winner. (Mar.)
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