My Book World
At times, reading historical fiction seems much like painting by numbers. The skeletal outline is there; you merely select the correct colors and recreate a picture as it should be. With regard to the novel, the historical outline is there; you can’t deviate much from the actual timeline. But you can focus on characters who perhaps have been lost to history, in this case, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, who are in the box with Abraham Lincoln when he is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, in 1865. The novel focuses on these step-siblings who grow up in the same house when one’s widowed father marries the other’s widowed mother. They fall in love, and in due time, get married, when both are in their thirties. Mallon bases his novel on a myriad of research about these two historical figures—turning Lincoln’s life and death into a mere backdrop for this story.
The only aspect of the novel I don’t care for is Mallon’s occasional peek at the future, when the characters of 1875 would have no such knowledge:
“If only men might devise some way of preserving sound, so their voices might be kept with photographs and engravings, not just sent out from the body to die upon the air” (261).
Otherwise, the novel is impeccably written, and, though the pace may seem slow, one’s reward for finishing it is to experience a climax that is both shocking and yet a surprise for which one has been well prepared.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017