11.22.63. The day JFK is assassinated.
But what if he lived? This is the interesting question posed by Stephen King in his epic new novel.
What if someone could time-travel from 2011 armed with the details of the assassination and prevent it from happening? Would the world be a better place now had he lived?
Jake Epping, a sensible, respectable English teacher is convinced to do just that after the proprietor of his favourite eating place ages radically and starts dying of lung cancer seemingly overnight. Al Templeton has found a "rabbit hole" in the back of his diner that leads to 1958, and no matter how long one spends in the past, on returning through the rabbit hole only two minutes have passed in 2011.
Al, having made numerous trips to 1958 to buy the meat for his burgers, has collated together all the information he can about Lee Harvey Oswald, his movements, his family and acquaintances, his living quarters, but now he is too sick to stop Oswald himself.
Of course, as the rabbit hole appears in 1958, Jake has five years to spend in the past before the 22nd October 1963 comes around. He also has to ensure that Oswald is actually the shooter.
Even as Jake accustoms himself to late 1950s customs, even as he partakes in the normal, everyday existence, tribulations and exultations of a schoolteacher in a town outside Dallas called Jodie, King masterfully keeps up the tension of Jake's real reason for being there. The very date of 11.22.63 seems to loom over the story like the Dome looms over the town in Under the Dome.
King captures the essence, perceptions and prejudices of the late 1950s perfectly. Sexism, racism, the political split, nothing is kept back. Yet there is also the kindess, the community spirit, the comparative liberty of the time. There is also humour. I laughed out loud at a snippet of conversation that took place on the 22nd November 1963, even though I could see it coming a mile off.
Once again King picks up on small, mundane acts of human life and turns them into something big, even meaningful, in once small action showing the character of the time and the people that lived through it. Not even including Jake's actions, every one of which there is a sense it could have radical consequences, but something as simple as a woman washing a car with one hand and holding a cigarette in the other.
We grow to know and love the characters over the five years, from Jake, to his (very) mature student Harry, to Sadie, the woman Jake meets in the past. We are as horrified, saddened and gladdened by their experiences as the characters that surround them and care for them.
The premise of the story is gripping, as is the storytelling. I devoured the 700 pages in five days, half of it on the coach-trip home from a weekend in London on Tuesday.
I challenge anyone to read this book and the afterword and not to immediately search YouTube for "Zapruder Kennedy".