Ok a few truths.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was originally written and published in French. The Swiss author, 28-year-old Joël Dicker’s first novel wasn’t a big hit, but he followed it up by writing this 600 page satire of a young American man (his age) who writes one bestseller and then can’t write anything else.
His pushy agent and publisher threaten law suits and ruin unless he meets a deadline on his next big thing. Rather than write, he visits his ageing writing professor in New Hampshire, who was once a young man who wrote a bestseller and then didn’t write anything else. He gives him advice that prefaces many of the chapters:
“Books are interchangeable: People want a story that excites them, relaxes them, entertains them. And if you don’t give them that, someone else will – and you’ll be history.”
Yesterday I was in the popular French bookstore FNAC (a kind of WH Smith equivalent) in Lyon and saw La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert is still in the Number 1 slot. I saw it the day before in the giant supermarket Carrefour in the same position. It’s been a bestseller for over a year in France.
I do love watching a book become a runaway success and don’t always read them, but this is a book in translation, double victory – the rights sold to 35 countries and translated into 37 languages and it won two prestigious French book awards.
The Harsh Truth.
However despite all the accolades, I have to be honest and say that I did not enjoy the read, it offered very little in terms of what I like to get from a book and worse, it annoyed me immensely in parts.
Maybe Not Your Truth Though.
But first the story, because it is a somewhat compelling read which many have and still may enjoy; full of twists and turns, a disappearance,a cold case reopened, concerning teenage girls, older men, appearances not what they seem, everyone with something to hide and more twists than an old-fashioned telephone cord. So many twists in fact, I can’t remember who did it. No, everyone did it, didn’t they? Well, Dicker certainly has a skill in making you think they’re all capable of murder.
So Marcus Goldman is living the life of a rich and famous writer in New York on the strength of a debut bestseller, when his writers block starts to have menacing consequences and he has to come up with a solution, quickly. He visits his old university professor Harry Quebert, whom he had kind of forgotten while he was busy being famous and pursued by actresses and other celebs. Not long after his visit, Harry is accused of the murder of Nola Kellergan (Nola, Lola, Lolita?), a 15-year-old girl who disappeared 30 years ago, whose remains are discovered, implicating Harry Quebert.
Marcus returns to Harry’s home when he is arrested and makes the investigation of his innocence his new purpose in life, he meddles in police affairs, interviews locals and even receives his own menacing threats penned by someone who wants him to leave town. The case might well provide him with the solution he requires, as his publisher asks him to write The Truth about what went on between Harry Quebert and Nola Kellergan.
Joël Dicker speaking in FNAC bookstore
A Consuming Truth
Viewing the wall of bestsellers is the first thing you see when you enter major supermarkets in France like Geant Casino and Carrefour; it says a lot about local culture that people are being enticed to grab a book at the very first moment they enter a supermarket! I don’t think I have seen that in any other country, I have listened to experts talk about enticing customers with fresh healthy fruit at the entrance, but not literature.
Too Many Additives
For me, although I get the requirement of a modern social satire to exaggerate, the Harry Quebert story carried too many characters that were inflated caricatures of American stereotypes, with insufficient humour to make it work. Trying to be a satire, a pastiche and a murder mystery with its innumerable twists made it for me, like a cocktail made by an unsupervised teenager who, rather than combining two ingredients, like a mature pre-adult can’t resist adding a little of everything on offer until ultimately it becomes unpalatable.
I viewed it as an outsiders attempt at making a comment on modern American society, media, publishing, the sensationalism and obsession with broadcasting the trials of celebrities. That a 28-year-old writer could enter into a police murder investigation and didn’t ring true enough for me to be able to read it without the constant presence of low-level annoyance at its flaws. Perhaps if I had saved it for a summer read when my expectations are lower, I may have enjoyed it more.
I do love that a French bestseller was picked up by international publishers and translated into English, the author interviewed in The Observer and elsewhere, but sadly, this award-winning novel wasn’t my cup of tea.
And in a twist of Great Gatsbyish irony, it seems that thousands of the English translation books are languishing in storage, waiting for a boom that has yet to arrive. Will it take a generation to be revered as an apt indictment of the times or will it languish in obscurity as a publishers costly mistake?
The Observer Article - Joël Dicker: ‘I lost a bit of control of my life’
Note: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher via NetGalley.