by Stephen King
Review by John Berlyne
Hodder Paperback Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780340898956
Date: 12 July 2007 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The mass market edition of King's most recent novel Lisey's Story a work that was loudly applauded amongst the critical community and had fans thanking their lucky stars that the author had decided not to hand in his noticed as had been rumoured. I reviewed Lisey's Story back in October 2006 , and to celebrate the reissue of the book in paperback, we're running the review again in this issue. Stephen King's latest (but not, contrary to earlier rumour, his last) novel is a slightly more sprawling work than Cell, released earlier this year (follow the link to read my review). Lisey's Story is a big, fat onion of a book, a story which veers far from the classic three act structure and instead has story-layer-upon-story-layer peeled away over the course of its narrative. In the hands of such a master of the writing craft, we can pretty much take for granted that this unconventional approach works (it does!) but that doesn't mean it doesn't make demands upon the reader (it does!).
The eponymous Lisey Landon is the widow of a very famous and successful novelist, but we meet her two years after her husband's death and she is still grieving. This process is hampered by her memories - those that she cherishes and those that she denies and suppresses. These latter memories are being triggered, rising to the surface as Lisey fends off the slavering academics that are desperate to riffle through the contents of her late husband's office, a space she has left untouched since his death. Other things are firing her memory synapses too, creating a nagging sensation in her that there is some design in her grief, something perhaps that her husband Scott is trying to tell her. But that, of course, would be absurd - for Scott has been dead and buried these two years.
But as King unravels Lisey's Story for us, we begin to see that it's not such an absurd idea at all. As the layers of the story peel away, we learn of Lisey's past, of her relationship with this very special man and we also, piece by carefully laid out piece, learn of Scott's own extraordinary background, of his impoverished and impossibly disturbed childhood. Lisey too is special - but in a different way. Scott's life is coloured with undeniable shades of the supernatural, something that went a long way towards making his star shine so brightly. Lisey on the other hand has been in Scott's shadow all her married life. This is no source of frustration for her, rather she serves to embody the adage that behind every great man, there is always a great woman - though ironically Lisey's true greatness only surfaces during the events that take place in the novel.
Though Lisey's Story is a focussed tale that takes place over a relatively short period time, it is also a dark, dense and suspenseful work, interspersed with continual flashback sequences. Some of these cause the pace of the book to pall in places, but that's okay, for Lisey's Story is more than a simple plot-driven work. King uses his uncanny talent for taking a snapshot of time and stretching it out for the reader, examining it from all angles and highlighting single micro-moments which go on to become emblems and themes that get explored throughout the rest of the narrative. This is something we've seen many times in his work, but here it is used with and for particular effect and it gives Lisey's Story a kind of hyperclarity. It is in places, a hard tale of grief, of madness, of triumph over adversity, of a deep and enduring love and it cannot fail to touch and to resonate with those who read it.
Lisey's Story comes across (no doubt as intended) as something of a very personal work in King's canon. It is dedicated to his wife Tabitha, who like the novel's heroine, is married to a world famous author, and I've written before of my assertion that one of King's strongest qualities as a writer (among many such strong qualities) is his ruthless honesty. Like many great artists, he is able to examine his own faults and foibles through the medium of his work. And of course, as he is no more a human being than you or I, we recognise such faults and foibles in ourselves and this gives King's characters that everyman quality that makes his work so appealing and accessible to such a wide readership. Gender is no barrier with King, nor is age or situation. The depth of his insight into all of us, good and bad, happy or sad, is what has kept him at the top of his game for so very long. And long may it continue.