Review: “La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert” by Joël Dicker

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Marcus Goldman is an author whose first and as yet only novel sold so well that he has become the new shining light of American literature. Yet in his new lascivious lifestyle he becomes stuck by the stifling effects of writer’s block. He eventually winds up at the house of good friend, teacher, former University lecturer and respected author Harry Quebert to draw inspiration from the serenity of Aurora. That is until the skeleton of a 15 year-old girl is discovered buried metres away from Quebert’s house. With a manuscript copy of his grande-oeuvre alongside it, and the words ‘Goodbye Nola Darling’ written on the title page. Nola Kellergan vanished from the region back in 1975, 33 years ago.

 

It is, in the first instance, a thriller. Quebert admits he had an affair with this girl during the summer of ’75 when he was 34. However he also pledges his innocence to Goldman. And we are off on a capricious quest to find out the truth about the Harry Quebert affair. Through the 550 pages the plot is continuously in flux, twisting and changing, bringing in more characters to be dissected under the narrator’s inquisitive light. Goldman quizzes many people related to Nola and the incidents of the summer of 1975, and this allows for one of the strengths of the novel: the characterisation. As we are introduced to each character, we become aware of their story, their relations with Nola and the region, and this allows the reader to build up a rather vivid picture of the events of that summer. As we gain increasingly more information from Goldman’s inquisitions, we suddenly think we know who it is: Nola’s parents who used to beat her! Or Elijah Stern who actually owned the house Harry lived in during that summer and paid her to pose naked in his house! Or maybe his chaffeur Luther Caleb who used to follow Nola around and has been known to mishandle young girls. But then officer Pratt, who led the case during the time, was known to have forced Nola to perform sexual acts on him. The moment the reader thinks he knows who it is, Dicker slips the rug from under your feet and you find yourself looking around once again thinking “what the bloody hell’s going on here!?”

At the centre of the narrative is a seemingly idealised and unquenchable love between Quebert and Nola, probably the only thing that remains constant throughout the novel. But it is also a story of friendship, about writing (each chapter begins with advice offered from the master Quebert to his student Goldman over the years), fame, childhood, psychological problems, happiness, murder, justice and truth. There is certainly a lot to consider.

Yet it is not the most sparkling prose you’ll ever read. There are some romanticised passages expressing the relationship between Nola and Quebert, but generally the prose is fast-moving and plot driven. Thus it is easy to see why this was the novel to knock Dan Brown’s Inferno off the top of the best-sellers charts around Europe last summer. The rights for the English translation have apparently been purchased by Penguin for a reported £300,000, the largest ever sum paid for an advance, and it is due to be published in around May this year. And I’m sure a film won’t be far behind.

 

La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert is available in French on Amazon: http://www.amazon.fr/v%C3%A9rit%C3%A9-sur-laffaire-Harry-Quebert/dp/2877068161

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