Sunday, March 25, 2012

Replay by Ken Grimwood

The problem with the must read list is that it can sometimes be a bit of a lucky dip. I do get books I’ve already read and others by authors I’ve always wanted to read, but never had the opportunity until the name came up on the list, but I sometimes get others that I either don’t enjoy or wonder why they’re on the list in the first place. Ken Grimwood’s name and his book Replay set some of my alarm bells ringing. I’d never heard of the author or the work and that often makes me wonder why. Replay did win a World Fantasy Award in 1987 when it came out, and I believe it’s success allowed the author to concentrate on writing full time, but it certainly hadn’t ever appeared on my radar before even when it was originally published. From the little bio and précis in the book it didn’t really sound very fantastic.

I’m happy to report that my fears in this case were entirely unfounded. Replay is an awesome book. It is fantasy, but not in the way that many outside the genre define it, actually quite a few within it wouldn’t define it in this way. There is no magic, no swords, no fantastical otherworlds. Replay is the story of an ordinary man called Jeff Winston, living his day to day life in our world, or one very like it…over and over again.

Replay begins with it’s main character; Jeff Winston, a middle aged news executive at a local radio station at his desk, dying of a heart attack. When Jeff comes to it’s 1963, he’s 18 and in his first year of college. His entire life is ahead of him again. How many of us have ever looked back and wondered what if when it comes to the choices we’ve made in life? Jeff uses his knowledge of the future to amass a large fortune and fashion a better life than the one he left behind. Despite being wealthy, successful and powerful the only thing that brings him any real happiness is his daughter Gretchen (Jeff and his wife Linda were childless in his first life), and then just when he is happy with Gretchen he dies again. Same age, same day and in the same fashion and again he wakes up in 1963 at the age of 18.

He starts over again and this time he marries his college sweetheart; Judy, and they have a happy and fulfilling life together, they adopt two children, then despite taking all the right precautions Jeff dies of a heart attack at the age of 43, and once again is in 1963. Miserable and becoming frustrated by his inability to life his life to it’s logical conclusion he falls into a hedonistic life style of drugs, alcohol and casual sex, until a near miss in a plane crash drives him to a hermetic existence of solitude. One day while picking up supplies in the town nearest to his farm Jeff sees an advertisement for a film called Starsea, it is runaway success, the thing about it that interests Jeff is that it is out of time for him and it heralds the beginning of the careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas before either man was meant to experience the sort of success they later would achieve. This leads Jeff to the film’s creator Pamela Phillips, who is, like him, another ‘replayer’. This is where Replay turns into a love story.

Jeff and Pamela are soul mates, they live and die and always find each other somehow. They live many lives, but never stop loving each other even when they irrevocably alter the course of the past with their knowledge of the future, until they both die one final time.

Replay is a fantasy, a time travel adventure, it has elements of a thriller, an alternate SF novel and a romance. It’s got an unseen, extraordinary end and it has real human characters that the reader can identify with.

I was enthralled all the way through and was reading compulsively, how I never discovered this book before I do not know. The two concepts that most immediately spring to mind are both from screen, TV and film. It at first reminded me in some ways of the 1980's and 90's TV show Quantum Leap, in which the central character Dr Samuel Beckett kept leaping from body to body within his own life span in an effort to finally get back home for good. The other one was Groundhog Day, Jeff's situation was similar in that he was forced to relive the final 25 years of his life over and over. In terms of books the closest thing I can think of is Connie Willis' Hugo award winning Blackout/All Clear, in which time travelling historians go back to wartime England and are at pains to try and not effect events whilst observing them.

Highly recommended. Replay is about the best book I've read off the list.


  1. I've had this on my radar the last couple months, this really makes me want to get my hands on it. Thanks.

  2. I'm not sure how easy it is to get these days. I was lucky enough to pick up a copy 2nd hand, but if you can get it I do recommend it unreservedly. It's a bit different, but it's very good, and it's short too, so won't take you all that long to read and impact on your ever growing TBR pile.

  3. That's always a good thing. I need to do something about that pile o'shame, then again I would hate to not have something ready to read next.

  4. Oh yes, the days of finishing a book and not having anything new to read. I remember those...barely.