Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Replay by Ken Grimwood
Published: Grafton, 1987
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

Jeff Winston was 43 and trapped in a tepid marriage and a dead-end job, waiting for that time when he could be truly happy, when he died.

And when he woke and he was 18 again, with all his memories of the next 25 years intact. He could live his life again, avoiding the mistakes, making money from his knowledge of the future, seeking happiness.

Until he dies at 43 and wakes up back in college again...”

Replay is the first novel I’ve read by Ken Grimwood, and it seems that it is his most well-known work.  It appears that a few of his other novels were connected to details in Replay, which I think is a really interesting idea.  Unfortunately, Grimwood’s lesser-known works are currently a little difficult to find, so I don’t know when or if I will be able to read them.  

My Thoughts:

I had high expectations for Replay, but it took me a while to really warm up to the book.  I started reading it twice in the past few years, only to get distracted and put it down. I can trace my lack of interest to an ironic difficulty I have in identifying with ‘everyman’ protagonists.  Jeff Winston, in the beginning, seemed to be exactly that, and his first replay started with the pursuit of fast money and fast women. I’m very glad that I finally settled in to read the novel, because the story became so much more than it first appeared.  Jeff’s subsequent replays of his life began to build on one another, such that his mental state and identity became increasingly complicated and compelling as the story progresses. In retrospect, I can see how Jeff needed to get those juvenile dreams out of his system when he was first faced with inexplicable new youth, but he was not the kind of shallow person who could accept their fulfillment as the end of his journey.

The replays carried with them great promise, but also great sadness, since every life was self-contained.  Jeff had numerous lifetimes to explore the limits of his capabilities and to learn how he could affect the world, but he could never move past his 43rd year of life. Jeff could never grow old with his family, and he had to start each new life knowing that everything he had accomplished, every relationship he had developed, had been wiped out as if it never existed.  I thought it was a very interesting situation—giving a person the opportunity to shape their lives as they wish, but also repeatedly erasing everything they achieve.  It’s such a strange balance between optimism and meaninglessness, and I enjoyed seeing how characters would react to being faced with this again and again.  Jeff was not one to passively accept his situation, and his search for understanding of himself and his situation propelled the story.

Given the repetitive nature of the premise, I was surprised that the story did not actually feel repetitious.  Each of Jeff’s lives go in very different directions, both in terms of his external situation and in terms of how he has changed as a result of his experiences.  The story also has a few surprising game changers that Jeff uncovers as he searches for meaning in his ‘replays’, but I don’t want to spoil them here.  At points, I feared that the ending would be a bit sappy and trite, but those fears turned out to be unfounded.  I felt that the ending was neither altogether happy nor sad, but instead filled with a sense of hope and uncertainty. Replay was published nearly thirty years ago now, and it is set in a particular period of history, but I think that the story will continue to resonate with readers for many years to come.

My Rating: 5/5

I had high expectations of Replay, and after I made it through Jeff’s first replay of his life, the rest of the story exceeded them.  It is a story about the risks people take or avoid in their lives and what they could accomplish with the assurance of second chances. It’s also a story about coping with circumstances outside of one’s control, and of facing the reality that one’s accomplishments will be swept away as if they had never existed.  Jeff starts out chasing juvenile dreams of money and sex, but with his many lives, he has an opportunity to see what kind of a person he is capable of becoming.  Several plot twists make the story delightfully more complicated, and I felt that things came together into a surprisingly hopeful and clear-sighted conclusion. Though it is set in a time that is growing increasingly distant from modern day, I think this is a story that can pass the test of time.


  1. Great review. I've meant to read this book several times but have never done so. I even picked up a copy last year when our SF book club read it and still didn't get to it. Which is odd, given that the idea is very appealing to me. Yours is another great review that tells me that I do need to make an effort to get to it.

    1. Thanks for your comment! It took me a while to get around to reading it as well, and in the end I wished I hadn't taken so long :). I hope you enjoy the novel as much as I did!