Hodder & Stoughton

11.22.63, By Stephen King

Stephen King might not be making history with his latest novel, but this romantic, time-travelling conspiracy thriller definitely breaks new ground

Stephen King's new epic is arguably literature's first romantic-time-travelling-conspiracy-thriller.

Fusing The Time Traveler's Wife with an episode of Quantum Leap, King has produced The Time Traveler's Divorcee Goes Back to the Future to Prevent the Kennedy Assassination.

The divorcee in question is Jake Epping, devoted school teacher, newly directionless singleton and typical King hero. Observant and decent, he is haunted by the memory of his alcoholic ex-wife, Christy. Epping's failure to cure her addiction and save their marriage explains his otherwise barmy decision to change the course of history.

Like many King narrators, Epping's most important character trait is his credibility – vital if we are to believe the reality-bending quest he undertakes. Occasionally this means that Epping narrates to a point of exhausted irritation. His eye for Kingly ephemera (cars, pop music, obscure short stories) and his tendency to over-share his adventures in teaching inspire the occasional skim or guiltily premature page-turn. For the most part, however, Epping convinces. He's as average a Joe as you or I – it's just that he's discovered a tear in the fabric of the space-time continuum.

Wisely, King doesn't dwell on the sci-fi mechanics of his high-concept MacGuffin: I for one was grateful there were no Terminator-like games where Epping watches his younger self play baseball. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Epping's surreal trial by time zone begins with little explanation, and in the most mundane surroundings. It is typical of 11.22.63's hymn to folksy, small-town America that the temporal wormhole is located in Al's local diner.

Al himself has been visiting the past on a regular basis, placing bets, purchasing cheap meat and waxing lyrical about more innocent times. King and Epping know better: courtesy, tasty food and a sense of community contend with ignorance, racial prejudice and sexual discrimination.

Al is one of many enjoyable, if slightly clunky plot devices: ditto the prefatory murder story set in 1958. Al sets up the rules Epping must follow. The most ingenious of these is that while history can be changed, it resists such attempts with all its might. Epping encounters flat tires, tumbles down stairs and, ultimately, far worse on his way to achieving his goal. This more than justifies King's time-travelling conceit. 11.22.63 is unusually sensitive to cause and effect; to the knowledge that one good turn doesn't necessarily lead to another.

Epping rewinds to Maine in autumn 1958 – hence the choice of saving JFK. (I myself would have stopped Herman's Hermits.) This starting point means that 11.22.63 follows the same trajectory as James Ellroy's seminal novel about the Kennedy assassination, American Tabloid. Both authors have great fun transforming the unstable facts of the assassination plots into games of narrative join-the-dots. But whereas Ellroy creates a crazy matrix of law, politics, sex, big business and underworld shenanigans, King slows the pace and focuses on the sort of small town in Maine in which he was raised.

Epping teaches at the local school, falls in love with a librarian (Sadie Clayton) and becomes a fixture in the local community. History, he slowly realises, is personal as well as public. People may remember exactly where they were when they heard of Kennedy's assassination but King knows that we recall just as vividly falling in love, learning a friend has died, or the day we made a difference to another person's life.

11.22.63 is quite something, an exciting, intelligent if overlong book that underlines all King's powers as a novelist while exposing some of his flaws. Twenty-first-century King is a strange beast: populist and high-minded, artless and self-conscious; as ambitious as any novelist but always anxious about that ambition. Take Epping, who can sound spookily similar to the King of the excellent "memoir of the craft", On Writing. One moment he alludes to Paul Bowles and Percy Shelley. Then, lest you mistake him for one of them thar "fancy schmancy" literary snobs, he delivers forceful home-spun critiques of his students' prose: "they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, pursey-mouthed and ooo, don't slip on the icy patch, Mildred."

The more I read of 11.22.63, the more I was reminded of King's possible masterpiece, the short story "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption". (11.22.63 even name-checks the prison.) Both feature good but damaged men imprisoned by time as well as place. Both narrators are assisted by older, wiser guides, both use literature to help protégées and both are haunted by memories of alcohol-induced marital breakdown. In the end, both are redeemed by coming to terms with the past, learning to make better choices and escaping to a brighter future.

Whether the 740 pages of 11.22.63 will outlast the 94 of "The Shawshank Redemption" is not for me to say. History will be the judge of that. But then, we knew that already.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015