If you judged this latest novel from the master, Stephen King, solely on the originality and complexity of the murder mystery at the centre of its storyline, then your verdict would probably be along the lines of; “I’ve read better crime stories and this one was a little too obvious.” But, Stephen King’s finest works are never really about the machinations of plot, they’re about characters and how they react in any given situation. Joyland has at its heart a superbly realised group of characters, which elevate this simplistic tale of murder to a place amongst the best, and most emotional, of King’s oeuvre.
The events take place in the summer of 1973 when the narrator, Devin Jones, who is relating the events whilst now in his sixties, worked his summer break as a ‘Happy Helper’ at the amusement park of the title. There he meets a mix of fellow summer temps, grizzled amusement park veterans and a young disabled boy and his mother who may just be the answer to Devin getting over the break-up with his shallow childhood sweetheart. Devin is told the story of a girl murdered in the Horror House four years earlier and this sows the seed for his investigation of the crime. However, this doesn’t really kick-in till almost three-quarters of the way through, after the love story element of the book. This is no saccharine-sweet, summer romance between two young characters though, it is the love story of the author and the 1970s; a simpler time of an honest day’s graft and leisurely beach walks. King evokes the period with his usual blend of description and contemporary detail and peppers the dialogue with the slang of the carnival setting.
The novel’s real strength is the ability to make the reader care for the characters. King is so deft at drawing his main characters that the revelation of one character’s fate may bring a tear to the eye inside of 110 pages – something which some 700-plus page stories cannot elicit at all.
It is not the most original of stories but the execution is sublime and it’s refreshing to see King return to a shorter length which has seen some of his best, character focussed work succeed at, such as The Body, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Mist. Joyland is a delightful, enjoyably brisk read, yet it packs an emotional punch that will leave you reaching for the tissues. Go on, spend your summer at Joyland, you won’t regret it.
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