After finishing a work of magic realism that focuses on the return of John Lennon to the world stage (John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe) I set my sights and my Kindle to another fictionalized Lennon story, this one quite ambitious in scope. Author Kessler spent more than twenty years researching the life of Lennon - interviewing people once close to the man and the band he help form, visiting landmarks and poring over countless Beatles archives - in order to take on the monumental task of telling Lennon's life story. There are plenty of biographies already, another one came out last year, but Kessler's take is unique in that her version of Lennon's life is novelized and thoroughly detailed, with practically every move made documented.
As I've gathered from the author's website and other sources, Kessler has intended to write three books to span Lennon's forty years. Shoulda Been There and Shivering Inside are currently available, and She Loves You is forthcoming. I've neither read nor investigated the second book, but I would argue that Shoulda Been There is probably the most ambitious of the three projects. This book alone chronicles half of Lennon's life, beginning with the day of his birth and taking the reader up to the "birth" of the Beatles' relationship with Brian Epstein. These two events bookend just over twenty years of history that include Lennon's childhood at Mendips, tensions between his mother Julia and Aunt Mimi, the evolution of the Quarry Men into the Beatles as they conquered the Hamburg music scene. Each chapter ends with an author's note that dissects fact from conjecture, and in some instances serves to correct myths that have surrounded the Beatles legend. Some readers may be put off by these notes appearing throughout the book, as though they might pull people out of the story. I didn't feel that happened to me, but the notes are rather short and not disruptive.
Having read several Beatles books and biographies over the years, I went into Shoulda Been There knowing the story. As a novel, Lennon's story makes for provocative prose, and Kessler is to be commended for undertaking such a project. Where the writing is concerned, Kessler does well in evoking a sense of place, though there were times I wondered if she relied on reader familiarity with the characters in play. Instances of point of view shifting, or head-hopping, proved distracting. One thing I would suggest if you are unfamiliar with the slang of time is to browse the helpful glossary Kessler offers at the end first before reading the book.
I found Shoulda Been There enjoyable and true to the Lennon history as I have known it. It's obvious Kessler takes great care in presenting her subject and is devoted to authenticity. With more than half of Lennon's life covered here, it will be interesting to see how the pace of the other books differ.
Rating - B+
Kathryn Lively is the author of Rock Deadly, a Mystery (Book One of the Rock and Roll Mysteries) .