review by Deon van Heerden

Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
PB 752 pages
RRP £9.00 (Kindle £9.99)

From Issue 19 (Mar 2012)

When I heard that Stephen King was releasing a time-travel novel, I found myself excited and apprehensive in equal measure; time-travel novels are pretty much the multi-disc concept albums of the literary world, and even the finest authors can easily stumble and embarrass themselves when traversing this uneven, but well-trod, ground. And yet, somehow, 11/22/63 manages to be almost impossibly good, a historical-fantasy-thriller-romance novel, which excels at every one of these.

The premise is simple: Jake Epping, a present-day English teacher, is presented with the opportunity to travel back in time through a wormhole to stop the John F. Kennedy assassination. There are, of course, a number of complicating factors, and the novel’s various conceits are elegant and well-considered. King’s treatment of the past, its contradictions and paradoxes – and, oh so thrillingly, its character – is virtuosic, a delicate and beautiful house of cards which puts pretty much any comparable book to shame.

After an extremely entertaining and wildly suspenseful first 250 pages or so, King eases off the throttle for a while, immersing us in a surprisingly sweet and understated love story. We get to know the (uncharacteristically small) cast and, in time, we come to love them. I tend to scoff at people who criticize King’s books for being overly long, but, in all fairness, this part of the novel does suffer from pacing issues. Sandwiched as it is between one of the finest introductions and one of the greatest climaxes in the King oeuvre, however, I don’t see how it could have felt anything but a little plodding. And the payoff from our emotional investment in the characters during the book’s final 200 pages – an absolute frenzy of tension too agonizing to read, but too hypnotic to put down – makes any feelings of impatience more than worthwhile.

The historical detail King crams in is exceedingly impressive, but never overwhelming, and he convincingly captures the zeitgeist of the late 50s and early 60s. It is often through the smallest, subtlest details that King succeeds in imbuing the past with the sort of immediacy which very few authors can match. His characterization of various historical figures is superb; their depth and detail, complimented as they are by an almost banal normalcy, is a triumph of artistic integrity. King has managed to capture and weave together the disparate elements of the events around Kennedy’s assassination in a manner which manages to be at once compelling and – crucially – supremely objective; an incredible feat considering how emotionally charged the issues in question remain after almost 50 years.

In short, despite its fantastical premise, there’s a core of emotional, uniquely visceral plausibility to this work, representing, as it does, the finest elements of all the genres from which it draws. It proves, ultimately, to be a sophisticated love story as beautiful as it is harrowing, as touching as it is deeply thrilling and as viscerally disturbing as it is uplifting. Read it.

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Deon van Heerden

Deon van Heerden is a musician and part-time English teacher at various universities. He enjoys being paid for his opinion.
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One Response to “11/22/63 by Stephen King”

  • I really enjoyed this book — and this review. King has had an interesting career arc. He started out strong, lost his footing after his drug days, but seems to be entering some kind of creative renaissance. This book and “Under The Dome” are among the best he’s done. I’m attending a workshop with King’s longtime researcher, Russell Dorr, as part of the New Hampshire Writers Project’s “Writers Day” in a couple of weeks (www,, and I’ll tell him Something Wicked says “hello.”