Today I bring you the review of a book that had been on my mind for a while…
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker
A crime story. A love story. More than 2 million copies sold worldwide.
And now a major 10-part MGM TV series starring Patrick Dempsey and Ben Schnetzer.
August 30, 1975. The day of the disappearance. The day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.
That summer, struggling author Harry Quebert fell in love with fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Thirty-three years later, her body is dug up from his yard, along with a manuscript copy of the novel that made him a household name. Quebert is the only suspect.
Marcus Goldman – Quebert’s most gifted protégé – throws off his writer’s block to clear his mentor’s name. Solving the case and penning a new bestseller soon merge into one. As his book begins to take on a life of its own, the nation is gripped by the mystery of ‘The Girl Who Touched the Heart of America’.
But with Nola, in death as in life, nothing is ever as it seems.
The film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet) and released on 23 August on SkyWitness.
The Baltimore Boys, a follow-up to the bestselling The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, is published in paperback.
About the author:
Joël Dicker was born in Geneva in 1985, where he studied Law. THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. It soon became a worldwide success in 2014, publishing in 42 countries and selling more than 3.5 million copies. In the UK it was a Times number one bestseller, and was chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club as well as Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Book Club.
In May 2017 his novel THE BALTIMORE BOYS, already making waves across Europe and number one in several countries, will be published for the first time in English. Both a sequel and a prequel to THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR, it will centres around traumatic events that blight the lives of the Baltimore branch of Marcus Goldman’s family.
In the meantime Joël has become “brand ambassador” for the Citroen DS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTKep1n4kFU
I’m not sure if it was the cover (the old cover) of this book, or the title, the fact that wherever I went (Spain, the UK, France) I saw the same book in airports and bookshops, or a combination of all that together with the blurb of the book, but I had been curious about this novel for a long time and, eventually, I got around to reading it.
The book and its author have received many accolades and awards, and it is one of those books that manages to combine a gripping story (a mystery that keeps wrong-footing investigators and readers alike) with an interesting narrator and a clever way of telling the story that becomes a part of the action and almost a character in its own right.
The book is divided into Three Parts (Part One: Writer’s Disease, Part Two: Writer’s Cure, Part Three: Writer’s Paradise), a Prologue, and Epilogue, a first scene, and acknowledgements at the end. In brief, this novel is the story of the writing of a book, the book we have in our hands (we assume) by Marcus Goldman, also known as Marcus the Magnificent (you’ll have to read the book to know more about that, but let’s say that from a very young age, Marcus had been a man with a sense of his own destiny and had realised that there are ways of gaining fame and attracting everybody’s attention that are not all to do with hard work or talent). In part one, after an intriguing initial scene, we meet Marcus –who became famous after publishing his first book– suffering from writer’s block. Almost two years have passed since the publication of his novel (this is 2008), and he is desperate as his publisher has given him a deadline. To try and get out of the situation he goes to visit his writing teacher, Harry Quebert, whom he met at Burrows University, which he attended between 1998 and 2002. He lives in Somerset, Maine, and is happy to see him. While he is there, Marcus makes a discovery about Harry’s life, and as the novel progresses, we learn that there are many more secrets and mysteries hidden behind the letters and pictures he finds. A fifteen-year-old girl, Nola Kellerman, disappeared in 1975 and when her body is discovered in Harry’s property, all hell breaks loose.
The novel, although seemingly divided into the period before the writing of the novel, the actual writing of it, and its publication, keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time, sometimes through the narration of one of the characters (we go back to 1975, there are fragments where we learn more about Marcus’s relationship with Harry during university and in the in-between years, and we also travel to 1985 and to 1969), sometimes through letters and documents, sometimes we get to listen to recordings of interviews, or we get summaries of reports. There are also other written documents referred to throughout the book, the most important, The Origin of Evil, the novel that turned Harry into a famous writer, which everybody refers to as a masterpiece, and that he happened to write in Somerset, in 1975. Marcus narrates the story in first-person, but the fragments that are either written by others or part of his novel, are written in the third person. And there are false starts (as Marcus and later Gahalowood, a cranky but likeable sergeant, uncover new information, the notes and the book gets reframed and rewritten), draft versions, false endings, plenty of misunderstandings and intentional misdirection as well. We get different versions of events, but we also get alternative versions of characters, particularly of Nola, who at times appears as a Lolita, a seductress who could manipulate all adults around her, while at others she is an innocent victim of family and lusty men, or a muse intent on inspiriting a masterpiece, or perhaps just a young scared girl trying to find happiness. Nothing is what it seems to be when we consider both the plot and the characters, and even the basic things we think we know for a fact might require reconsideration.
It is perhaps not evident at the beginning, but each chapter starts with writing advice, that later we understand consists of thirty-one points Harry offers Marcus, starting from number thirty-one and going up the list. As a writer, I feel that most of the points are very insightful, and although most are not terribly personal, some, that we see given in context, later on, help us get a sense of who the characters are, and we come to realise that all the advice is pertinent to the story as well. The book follows its own advice, and it piles layer after layer of story and meaning (like Russian dolls), increasing and releasing the tension as explanation after explanation is given and eventually rejected, and as our expectations and trashed time and again.
The characters are well drawn and even some of the seemingly minor characters end up amazing us when we get to know them better (and believe me, we do). There are surprises, as I said, there is humour (mostly provided by the publisher and by Marcus’s mother, perhaps both these characters are less well drawn and caricature-like, but they are not part of Somerset and the story but instead interfere and distract the writer from his task), there are are many touching moments and those are not limited to the main protagonists either (even the least likeable characters get their spot in the limelight). Despite the repetitions and the jumps in time, the book is not difficult to follow, although it is not easy to keep all the clues in mind and guessing who did what is not simple, Of course, that is the beauty of complex mysteries. I have not read the original version, but I cannot fault the translation into English, and I kept highlighting sentences and paragraphs, some to do with writing, but some with the story.
At times readers will be almost shouting, aligning themselves with the editor, demanding that the book gets finished and there is an end to the story, but the author keeps going, pushing the sense of frustration and the patience of the reader, looping the loop once more. It’s a tour-de-force. As Harry says: Books are like life, Marcus. They never really end. Having said all that, I enjoyed the ending, even if at some points it felt as if I was watching one of those horror movies with monsters in them, where you think they are dead, but no, they keep coming. Here, the different explanations, suspects, and red herrings keep coming as well, but I loved the actual ending (even if some of the details and the explanations stretched a bit the suspension of disbelief, but I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers).
I recommend this novel to lovers of mysteries looking for a long and involving read that requires your full attention and is fairly demanding, especially if you don’t mind complex narratives and jumps backward and forward in time. I also recommend it to writers who love novels about writers, for the plot, for the format, and for the advice (most of which will make you nod and smile). This book made me think about many other stories: Lolita, Beauty and the Beast, Cyrano de Bergerac… Although the book is not overtly sexually graphic, here goes a word of warning as it does discuss a relationship between an adult male and a young girl, and there are instances of violence and brutal assaults that could be upsetting. The book depicts a world where white men occupy the main active (and alive) roles (Marcus is Jewish and that plays a major part in the jokes about his mother’s behaviour) and in no way challenges gender or diversity prejudices either, but some of the characters offer insightful comments and have positive attitudes.
I thought I would leave you with a couple of quotations, especially dedicated to writers and readers:
You know what a publisher is? He’s a failed writer whose father was rich enough that he’s able to appropriate other people’s talents.
A good book, Marcus, is judged not by its last words but by the cumulative effect of all the words that have preceded them. About half a second after finishing your book, after reading the very last word, the reader should be overwhelmed by a particular feeling. For a moment he should think only of what he has just read; he should look at the cover and smile a little sadly because he is already missing all the characters. A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished.
Thanks to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, please remember to like, comment, click, and always keep reading, reviewing and smiling!
But, before you go, another one of my books has become available as an audiobook:
The first novel in my YA paranormal trilogy, Angelic Business, now available as an audiobook, narrated by the fabulous Kathy James.
Angelic Business 1. Pink Matters.
Pink Matters is the story of Pink, a 17-year-old girl, a good student, articulate and smart. But she has never been the centre of attention or made the top ten in the rankings of the most popular and attractive girls at school. When two guys, both claiming to be angels, insist that she is, indeed, ‘special’, fight for her attention and help, and tell her she is the key to the future of the universe, she is quite cynical. But these guys can ‘do’ pretty amazing things, even miracles, so she has to wonder….
Now also available as an audiobook:
If you have never tried an audiobook, you can get it for free here.
You can listen to a sample here:
And you prefer a YouTube video, here it is: