Assassins catapult into public consciousness and thereafter the history books courtesy of what is usually their final act, a burst of violence so egregious that the search for a motive is already skewed in favour of aberration and instability. Their friends and family, too, come into focus through that highly specific lens, their own horror somehow marking them out as naive patsies, unaware of their loved one’s true nature.
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler, author of the much-loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, attempts a form of corrective to this state of affairs, her novel’s title itself suggesting it could refer to several of its characters. The most infamous, though, is John Wilkes Booth, the actor who in April 1865 murdered President Abraham Lincoln in a Washington theatre, days after Robert E Lee had ceded victory to the unionists in the American civil war. Booth, in common with regicides throughout the millennia – one of his obsessive fears was that America would become a monarchy, with Lincoln its king – has become a conspiracy magnet, every detail of his life and death scrutinised.
But Fowler’s primary goal is not to add to that literature; rather she is concerned with Booth’s parents and his siblings, of whom five out of nine survived to adulthood, and with their upbringing in a highly unconventional theatrical family. The paterfamilias, Junius Brutus Booth, was a celebrated Shakespearean actor, who quit his native Britain and his wife to set up home in rural Maryland, here portrayed as a rackety idyll from which he came and went at will, occasionally trailing glory and always in a haze of booze. Meanwhile, America inched closer and closer to a war between the abolitionists and secessionists.
Booth is immensely enjoyable and often exceptionally poignant, especially through its characterisation of the unmarried, dutiful sister Rosalie and her brother Edwin, who himself became a renowned actor. John, from his early days as one of the Baltimore Bully Boys to his self-pitying, petulant rants at his more successful peers, is glimpsed largely elliptically, through the concerns his loving family have for him and, finally, through their deep distress at his fate. It’s an approach that ably demonstrates that if you set aside the urge to solve a puzzle, you’ll come up with far more interesting questions.