Book review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair

MARCUS Goldman is, for a brief, shining moment, the brightest star in the New York literary firmament. 

Book review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair

Joel Dicker

Translated by Sam Taylor

MacLehose Press, £7.99; Kindle, £3.99

He is young, hip, handsome, and fresh from the triumph of a massively bestselling debut novel, the world is his for the taking.

He is having such fun splashing the cash, attending red carpet events and being linked in every gossip column with a TV beauty that it’s easy to ignore the initial pleas from agent and publisher for a follow-up book.

When he does awaken to his situation, under the threat of a lawsuit for breach of contract, panic sets in, panic exacerbated by a crippling months-long bout of writer’s block.

In desperation, he turns to an old friend and mentor, an elderly novelist named Harry Quebert, and takes up the offer of a few months in the New Hampshire sticks, with nothing else to have to do but work. And now, with the time and space to write, all Marcus needs is something to write about.

Fortunately, this too is provided, when landscapers working on Quebert’s land uncover the remains of a body, soon identified as that of Nola Kellergan, a young girl who vanished from her home in August 1975.

Furthermore, she is dug up along with a manuscript copy of The Origin of Evil, the novel that would subsequently make him famous.

There’s only one suspect, and it doesn’t help Quebert’s cause when, under interrogation, he confesses that he and Nola had been carrying on a torrid and illicit affair and were actually planning on running away together.

The fact that he was 34 at the time and she’d been just 15 seems to further justify the charges laid against him, and with the odds on a conviction tightening by the day, it’s up to Marcus to unravel the mystery of what actually took place those 33 years earlier and to try and prove his friend’s innocence.

Swiss writer Joel Dicker was still only in his late 20s when, in 2012, his novel, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, turned him into a worldwide phenomenon.

As well as scooping the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and reaching the shortlists of all the major French literary awards, the novel topped bestseller lists all across Europe, was translated into 32 languages, sold millions of copies and earned the young author an enormous deal for American rights with Penguin, the largest in that famed publisher’s long, illustrious history.

It’s difficult to claim that this novel has entirely lived up to such a rapturous reception; some of the characters are wonderfully developed but others are thinner than the page they happen to inhabit, and the dialogue tends at times to fall quite flat, especially when trying for cuteness or, even worse, comedy (the scenes involving the author’s mother are particularly cringe-worthy).

Yet for all its flaws, there is still a great deal to like, and there’s certainly ample evidence here that Dicker is a writer of enormous potential.

What he lacks yet in literary depth and girth, he more than makes up for with an innate storytelling ability and a rare and quite precious understanding of how to properly pace a plot.

He also shows a high degree of ambition in his narrative approach, with some clever structuring, plenty of twists and chapter lead-ins that offer little zen-like nuggets of advice passed from teacher to student on the craft of writing.

The result is a big, solid novel fairly bursting at the seams with a genuinely compelling story to tell, one that draws its readers in and keeps them on tenterhooks, almost feverishly turning pages. In that sense, it’s a triumph.

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