The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

Ok a few truths.

TruthAboutHarryThe 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.”

More truth.

Harry QuebertYesterday 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.

Joel Dicker

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.

Great Gatsby2And 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?

Further Reading:

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

  1. Bravo! Your review was better than the book…perhaps? I must admit you have enlivened your text with an active voice, opinonated and critical. That is always a pleasure to read! Sometimes when we leave our comfort zone ‘reading’ one’s thoughts are let loose. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: ““Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.”
    Thank you, thinker!

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    • Well thank you for the compliment. I just know that there is a writer behind the story and many readers who may enjoy what I prefer not to consume, so tried to achieve a kind of balance whilst being true to my honest opinion. 🙂 Thanks for the great quote, am in the mood for listening to thinkers today.

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  2. Great post, Claire. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of this novel – some positive, others much less so. Your review seals it for me, and I’m going to pass on this one…too many other books patiently waiting in my tbr pile.

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  3. “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.”

    Bravo for this, and all the rest of your post! I disliked this book so much I didn’t even review it, and took the give-away opportunity the publishers gave me off my blog. Could his be due to all the hype and accolades? Perhaps, but it was 98% due to the fact that I thought the book a huge disappointment.

    For one thing, Dicker’s mere 28 years shouted at me throughout the book. It was clearly written by someone very young and very unaware of life in America, although he supposes it second nature for himself.

    Also, while I am a great fan of big, thick books, I am not a fan of big, thick books which are boring and pointless.

    Well, you said it best in your post, I’m just here (from Jacqui’s post) to concur with you. And, nice to meet you!

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    • Thanks Bellezza and nice to meet you too. I probably wouldn’t have gone for this had it not been a translation and I wondered if it is more popular in Europe because the stereotypes are more readily accepted at face value and not based on experience or cultural knowledge.

      Some do manage to do it and succeed though, Luc Besson’s film adaptation of Malavita by Tonino Benacquista – The Family – was full of exaggerated characters, but somehow the humour carried it through. I’m not sure how funny the French found it though, in terms of their own portrayal, because here they are the subject of stereotype, but as perceived from within the culture, not outside it.

      Anyway, I’ll be steering clear of hyped up bestsellers, even translated ones in future!

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

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  4. Great review, Claire. I picked this up in Waterstones a few weeks ago and – unusually for me – really hated the first couple of pages. However, your review (and Scott Pack’s piece which I read earlier in the week) make me think my dad would enjoy it. (Which, of course, means I can borrow it if I feel like giving it a proper go!)

    Interesting that there are copies of the English translation languishing. I’d love to know whether that’s because there’s little appetite for translated books here or whether people have been put off by the mixed reviews.

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  5. I wonder if the fact that it’s supposed to take place in the US takes away? I can easily imagine a book like this coming off as both insincere and pointless. The moment I realized it’s actually supposed to be about Americans, I just felt myself losing interest. I wonder what that says about WHY I read translated literature…?

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    • That’s a really interesting point and not unconnected I am sure as to why the Europeans are so enamoured of it. I know I read translated fiction for a similar reason to why in my 20’s and 30’s I wanted to travel – and I mean travel, not be a tourist – to experience other cultures, people, ways of thinking and life. To open my mind to other ways of living, thinking, acting, being and although stories are imagination no matter where we live, knowing that the source of that storytelling is coming from a completely different foundation, upbringing, set of influences, is one of the attractions for me of reading across cultures.

      So I can see why it might appeal to all other foreign cultures, but it doesn’t really provide any insight for Americans, or if it does, they don’t in any way enlighten or say anything original or profound, that might tempt more readers in the English to consider the book, even if it is a lightweight mystery.

      Really interesting moment of self-awareness, thank you so much for sharing it, it’s made me consider the exact same thing – now, back to that Brazilian novella I just started!

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  6. I just finished this book last month, and while I liked it well enough, I can’t imagine recommending it as “the next hot thing”. I thought the dialog was occasionally clunky, and I wondered if that was a problem with translation. I am always curious about when foreigners write about the United States and I’m always interested to see the country through someone else’s eyes.

    I think the part that was the most remarkable was his ability over 600 pages to get you to almost forget that it’s a 30-something guy that wants to bang a 15 year old. A 15 YEAR OLD!!

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