The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by literary wunderkind Joel Dicker has been a publishing phenomenon. It sold over 2 million copies in the original French and has been translated into more than thirty languages since. To give you just a flavour of the literary praise heaped upon the novel, The New York Times Book Review called it “unimpeachably terrific”.
Marcus Goldman, the novel’s protagonist, is like Dicker – young, rich, famous, and struggling under the weight of literary expectation. Hopefully unlike Dicker, he’s a shallow self-absorbed asshat. He is struggling with intense writers block, and turns to his erstwhile mentor (the internationally renowned author Harry Quebert) for help. Quebert soon has enough on his plate however – the body of fifteen year old Nola Kerrigan, a local girl who disappeared thirty three years earlier – is found buried in Quebert’s back garden, clutching a manuscript of the novel that made Quebert’s name. It is soon revealed that the two had a passionate affair; that the novel in question was inspired by their forbidden love; and that Nola was not the sweet innocent that Quebert believed her to be at the time. As Goldman begins to investigate what happened so he can clear his mentor’s name (and conveniently get a multi-million dollar publishing deal for the novel he writes about it) it becomes apparent that many of the inhabitants of these sleepy town had their own secret connections to Nola, and their own reasons for wanting her dead.
This seems like one of those annoying reviews that gives away the entire story, but trust me that hasn’t happened here. This book has more plot twists than you’ve had hot dinners, and it is fast-paced and incredibly readable. There’s also more red herrings than the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has endings – so if, like me, you normally don’t read crime fiction because the ‘hints’ dropped are too obvious and it’s never a surprise ending, you’ll still enjoy this. Just when you think the story is over, there is a massive tailspin off in another direction and a whole additional subplot is opened up to boot. It’s certainly not boring.
That said – you really need to check your brain in at the door. This is not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination and the praise heaped upon the novel is somewhat baffling. It’s a book about a book with another book inside it (and that’s only the main ones, there’s more). A writer mentors another writer with such gems as “the first chapter is the most important” and there’s thirty one of those tips to get through. The dialogue is atrociously cliché (“You’re totally crazy, Goldman. That’s what I like about you”) and much of the prose is no better: “As soon as he saw her, he felt his heart explode. He missed her so much. As soon as she saw him, she felt her heart explode. She had to speak to him.” The novel is peopled with archetypes – the fading beauty queen, the isolated millionaire, the upwardly mobile housewife, the gruff cop with integrity. Several characters, including Nola-the-not-so-innocent-teenager and Marcus’s nagging Jewish mother, feel like they’ve been flat out stolen from elsewhere. In fact Nola is so like Laura Palmer she was played by Sheryl Lee in my ‘head movie’. Dicker must watch Castle as plot developments rely heavily on American police really allowing writers to become involved in all aspects of investigations. The final plot twist seems to have been taken from another story entirely and crowbarred in for the pure heck of it. Most damning of all, central to the plot of the book is the genius of Harry Quebert himself – who, in the best case scenario for his character, is a 34 year old obsessed with a fifteen year old girl and having ‘an affair’ with her. His debut novel The Origin of Evil is supposed to be the greatest book of the century, a masterpiece so extraordinary it has changed readers hearts and minds, an intimidating mountain of greatness that prospective writers know they can never climb themselves. The book contains several ‘excerpts’ from The Origin of Evil and they are universally woeful. Like really dreadful – think Twilight, but instead of vampires there were penpals. No really. I can’t underestimate the suspension of disbelief required to believe anyone could manage to finish that book, nevermind laud it as a masterpiece.
Whether or not The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is any good in spite of these failings is a question of how precious you want to be. Certainly the book itself wants to think of itself as clever, with its backdrop of writers and tortured artists and the meaning of a masterpiece – and much like the central book within a book here, I can’t see how it has managed to bamboozle so many critics into buying its own embedded hype. Yet it also has such a pacy plot that the problems come to light more when you finish reading, rather than as you read. A huge part of me says it’s awful shite, but the commuting reader in me says it’s a rattling good story that completely swept me away for a few days during a grim, rainy January. It’s not terrific, but it is very readable, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for pure escapism.