Book Review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker

Available in bookstores nationwide. cv_the_truth_about_the_harry_quebert_affair

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is Swiss author Joel Dicker’s first novel. Written in French, the rights have already been sold for translation into over thirty languages, and glowing reviews are coming in from all over the world. This one, however, won’t fall into the glowing category.

While I enjoyed the book well enough, it felt sometimes like I was being hit over the head with it. When I tell you its 4cm thick and weighs about a kilo, you’ll understand what I mean.

Dicker breaks a few rules with his story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just look at what Eleanor Catton did with The Luminaries for an example of an author self-imposing multiple constraints on herself while using a style not seen for a century, but who still delivered a sublime read.

In Harry Quebert, Dicker teases the reader with the promise of a structural innovation, a take-your-breath-away twist, or a revelation of unreliable narration. When, towards the end, it becomes clear that none of these will be delivered, the feeling is one of exasperation and disappointment. The three main sections are exactly what they say they are. The little introductions by Harry are nothing more than little introductions. The extracts from the book within the book are simply extracts. Sub-sections are dated and timed so we know exactly what is going on, with whom, and when. Dicker may have thought he was being exceedingly clever to show his narrator, Marcus Goldman, telling us what happened and then including extracts from his book-within-a-book that also tell us what happened, but it soon becomes tedious when you realise that’s all he’s doing.

The characters have a similar lack of subtlety. The cop who instantly trusts Goldman and works together with him. The waitress who marries the wrong man. The tormented father of Harry’s under-age muse, Nola. The hideously disfigured – and therefore immediately suspected – handyman. And so on. Even the symmetry between Harry and Marcus isn’t enough. Marcus himself is the only one who has a slightly interesting and somewhat darker background, but does that result in a twist, a degree of unreliability or a nasty streak? No it does not. Will he turn out to be an anti-hero? Highly unlikely.
The truth is that The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is neither the book-within-a-book Goldman wrote first (The Harry Quebert Affair), or the revised version. It’s a hotch-potch of material that that we’re supposed to believe has been put together by Goldman. But why? Who is Goldman talking to? Are the sections where Goldman isn’t present supposed to be his fictional versions of events? Or does Dicker shift to the omniscient point of view for those sections? An inconsistent approach to the narrative lets the book down.

This book is already a publishing juggernaut, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown and J K Rowling, Dicker has written a story that fascinates people and draws them in, forces them to turn the pages to see what’s going to happen next. What Dicker didn’t need to do was try and dress it up in a complex structure to somehow give it some ‘literary’ kudos. When Ian McEwan or Marisha Pessl mess with our minds by putting things on the page that are not what they seem, it means something to the story. Dicker’s constructions do not; he might as well have simply told the story straight.

It is possible that the lack of subtlety comes partly from the translation. Unless you happen to be fluent in French, and can muster the strength to read it again, you’ll never know. But his characters are sufficiently stereotypical that I think I can safely say they’d appear the same whatever the language.

You could do a lot worse that read The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair if you’re after a book with literary pretensions, entertainment without requiring a great deal of thought, and a decent word count. The writer as a crime-solving hero? Here he is. If a half-decent screenwriter and director can get their hands on it, it will undoubtedly make a better movie than it does a novel. Goldman follows the classic hero’s journey so closely it’s easy to imagine Dicker writing with his copy of Christopher Vogler open beside him. I just wish he hadn’t tried to be so clever with the structure.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair
by Joel Dicker
Published by MacLehose Press
ISBN 9780857053107


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