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Stephen King has made a virtue of occupying that slightly uneasy middle ground between the ghettos of genre writing and the uptown neighbourhoods of literary fiction - and he makes a successful return to it with his latest doorstopper. Its primary conceit - Jake Epping, a high school teacher living in modern smalltown America, finds a way to travel into the past and emerge in the America of 1958 - thankfully remains just a peg to hang the story on. He never bothers to explain the hows and whys of the time travel, or delve too deeply into its paradoxes, and that's to the good. It leaves him free to do what he does best: telling a story that makes for compulsive reading.
That story evolves along two parallel tracks. The first is Jake's resolving to use his foreknowledge to stop what many Americans still consider one of the great tragedies of 20th century America - John F Kennedy's murder. The second track is the more mundane business of Jake's settling into a life in another era - a simpler, better era both he and the author seem to agree - and waiting out the five years until the assassination attempt as a high school teacher who meets the love of his life in the school librarian.
The amount of research King has done is impressive. The details about JFK's killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, his motivations and his associates ring true. So do the little touches that flesh out life in the US five decades ago. King has always eschewed stylistic flourishes in favour of taut plotting and everyday characters who are believable in extraordinary circumstances. Jake is a fine example of the latter, but King falters somewhat when it comes to the former. The book could have done with tighter editing to pare it by a hundred pages or so, and, ultimately, the life Jake makes for himself in mid-century America makes for more interesting reading than his attempts to stop Oswald.
King's rose-tinted view of that particular era is a little difficult to swallow at times as well, despite the cursory nods to the racial inequities of the time and other social ills. Still, the tension ramps up well when the two tracks converge, and King shows that he retains a deft touch when it comes to infusing his endings with an air of melancholy. It's not his best page-turner, but it's one of his better ones, and well worth a read.
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