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11.22.63 by Stephen King, book reviewIt is often said that people can remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news of John F Kennedy’s assassination, so shocking was the thought that the President could be shot in public, in broad daylight. But since then, many may have come to wish that their location on that fateful day was in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, so they could have somehow stopped the presidential motorcade or prevented Lee Harvey Oswald entering the now infamous Texas School Book Depository. So many, in fact, that the prevention of this assassination has become something of a recurring fantasy within science fiction; off the top of my head I can recall Dr Sam Beckett quantum leaping into Lee Harvey Oswald and the Red Dwarf crew inadvertently becoming the suspected second shooters on the grassy knoll. However hackneyed such a premise may be, though, I am a sucker for a good time travel story and when the great storyteller that is Stephen King sets out to tackle just this idea in 11.22.63, I couldn’t help but read it.

Our intrepid time traveller is Jake Epping, a 35 year old English teacher at a small town high school in Maine, who is shown a “rabbit hole” to the past in the storeroom of his favourite local burger joint. Al Templeton, the restaurant’s owner, has been using his own personal portal to 9th September 1958 to buy his ingredients cheaply for years, but more recently has realised a more valuable use for this temporal quirk: if you were prepared to invest five years of your time, you could potentially be in Dallas on 22nd November 1963 and act out what is surely second only to stopping Hitler in time travel fantasies: saving JFK and thus changing the course of American history. Al, aged in his sixties when he started out on his grand plan, admits he has been prevented from fulfilling his goal by becoming terminally ill, but sets Jake up nicely to take over his project. After all, Jake wouldn’t want to turn down a dying man’s request, would he?

“…King has managed to bring a fresh perspective that I really enjoyed…”

Entering the past armed with some fake ID – under his new name of George Amberson – a pile of 1950s cash and Al’s detailed notebook to act as his guide, Jake first sets out to test his new role as changer of time lines by saving a family in the nearby town of Derry from being slaughtered by their drunken father. The past, it seem, is highly resistant to change, but if Jake can succeed in manipulating it successfully here, he feels he will have learnt enough to start working towards the main goal of his trip: to stop Lee Harvey Oswald (who Al has identified as the sole shooter of JFK with what he described as “95% confidence”) and return to a 2011 that he hopes will be better than the one he left.

Thus King sets up a long and detailed narrative arc: if this story is to reach the assassination of JFK from 1958 it has to cover Jake’s life in the past for a full five years, which is a challenging proposition to say the least. He wastes no time in throwing the reader straight into Jake’s adventure, and keeps up a startling pace of action through the first third of the book – interestingly keeping a lot of it in Derry, the town that was the centre of King’s 1986 hit novel, “It”, and which features some of the characters from it in passing (including references to a killer dressed as a clown that will send shivers down some readers’ back, I don’t doubt). With his dry run mission taken care of, Jake heads south to Texas, where the middle third of book falls into something of a lull, before things pick up again as 1963 approaches. At over 700 pages in length I don’t think I will be the only reader who wondered why the “rabbit hole” couldn’t have taken Jake back to, say, 1961 instead – still plenty of time to do what the story ultimately achieves, but without the overly long set-up for the final act of the story that I found a bit much.

For all that I consider 11.22.63 to be a bit on the long side, however, it is ultimately a very satisfying read. King’s thorough research, use of period detail and ability to suck the reader into the story and keep them involved and entertained for the hours they will need to invest to reach the end really is excellent. The premise may be well worn, but in this book King has managed to bring a fresh perspective that I really enjoyed – even the parts where it got a bit silly or self-indulgent. This is a book that has the potential to appeal not just to King’s fans, but to those who have never read his works before, and I for one would advise anyone who hasn’t tried his books before to give this one a go.


11.22.63 by Stephen King
Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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