Book Review: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

What an unusual book this was. Highly acclaimed and placed within the crime genre, I admit the title and the accolades Joël Dicker has received intrigued me. Yet, when I began reading The Trut19301797h About the Harry Quebert Affair, my initial response was “I am not going to enjoy this book.” There was something simplistic about the writing style, the repetitiveness that begins early in the novel, and it both irked me but also piqued my interest – what on earth is the writer doing?  Not very far into the narrative, I became hooked and stayed captivated to the very end.

So, what’s the book about and why all the hype surrounding it? The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is ostensibly a murder-mystery. It tells the story of a successful young writer, Marcus Goldman who, having difficulty producing his much-anticipated second novel, seeks the reassurance and help of his mentor, Harry Quebert, a great novelist who, thirty-two years earlier, produced what’s since become an American classic, The Origin of Evil.

While staying with Harry in New Hampshire, Marcus uncovers a dreadful secret – one that could destroy Harry’s reputation – that is (this is not a spoiler, as it’s in the blurb) that thirty-three years earlier, his great mentor had an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan – a girl who disappeared the night she and Harry were meant to elope, never to be seen again.

Uncomfortable with what he’s learnt, but determined to keep the unsavoury secret safe, Marcus returns to New York.  A month later, when Nola’s body is found buried in Harry’s garden and Quebert is arrested on suspicion of murder, Marcus rushes to his mentor’s side, determined to clear Harry’s name. Launching his own investigation, Marcus discovers a town rife with secrets and versions of events, of characters practiced in dissembling, many of whom have their own motives for not only killing Nola and another woman who was shot as she tried to aid a fleeing and bloodied Nola all those years ago, but for wanting Marcus to cease his incessant probing…

Segueing from the present to the 1970s, Dicker evokes not just the past with a dreamy reality, but a town on the threshold of having its innocence destroyed, of dreams about to be shattered, and families on the brink of imploding. Atmospheric, moody and creating both a claustrophobic intensity and yet able to summon the beauty of the natural surroundings, the reader is drawn into the tale of Nola and Harry, those who come into their orbit, and all the different versions of what happened that Marcus uncovers. Through his eyes and the words of Harry’s novel and, as it starts to be born, Marcus’ new one as well, we’re given insights into the past, present and the terrible possibilities of that fateful time back in the 1970s and the consequences of what unfolded in the here and now.

The novel plays with notions of truth and fiction – something the title itself announces when it boldly asserts it’s a “truth” and yet, it’s also a work of fiction. And so, the reader is plunged into liminal space where the lines between the two – between fact and fiction, truth and lies, are constantly blurred.

As much a treatise on writing and the writer’s craft; it’s a love story that, despite the unsavoury nature of the love (older man and not yet legal girl), doesn’t have you squirming in disgust. It is also about role models and mentors, and the relationships we form with them. Above all, it’s about memory and the stories that shape our recollections – how we tell them, how we remember them, how they structure our lives and the way we understand and read each other.

All the characters are beautifully and realistically drawn – particularly young, passionate and fascinating Nola – the object of everyone’s attention. The only weakness in the novel (apart from some of the repetitiveness – but that also works to play with the reader’s and character’s heads) is Marcus’ mother. Now, I know this type of Jewish mamma – I am Jewish and there’s no doubt, my mother and many of the women of her acquaintance rang familiar as I read the dialogue and interactions between mother and son. But she also grated in a book that took pains to construct fully-rounded and realised people. In that sense, she read more like a comic foil (though why, I don’t know), a caricature rather than a character and as such belonged more in a re-run of the US sitcom The Nanny than in the pages of this wonderfully disturbing, tricksy and clever novel.

Skilfully plotted, deceptively simply written (it is very easy to read), this is a terrific book packed with twists, turns and surprises that will frustrate, shock and delight. Four and half stars (the irritating and, frankly, misplaced mother forces me to take away half a star!).


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Book review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I didn’t sThe Goldfincho much read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as I was swept up in its powerful and sublime narrative with its exploration of love, loss, beauty, material objects and the relationship we can form with these and other people in our lives and how the choices we make, which are embedded in a moral code, define us.

The novel tells the tale of Theodore Decker who, suspended from school because of a questionable friendship he has formed as opposed to his own behaviour, has his life upended and shattered when he survives a tragedy that rocks New York. In the moments before and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he forms a bond with a young girl called Pippa and old man named Welty, both of whom become touchstones in what his life will become. Amid all the horror and shock that unfolds, Theo does something quite strange, he takes something extremely valuable and beautiful and tells no one what he has done

The consequences of this one action will echo and influence his life choices, merge into the memories of his past and erupt into the present in a prescient manner offering escape, promise and danger.

The novel then follows Theo’s life and the impact loss and accidental gain have upon him. His grief, his torment, the monotony and loneliness of his days are charted as he becomes not so much a victim of circumstance, but a victim of those determined to follow bureaucratic processes, tick their boxes and do the ‘right thing’ by this silent and oft sullen young man. This section of the book is heart-wrenching as well-intentioned people fail to see or understand how much Theo needs connection, longs for real communication and feeling, for someone to do more than simply satisfy the social niceties and offer platitudes. The only thing that allows him a link to his life before the tragedy, to experience and build any kind of emotional bridge is the object he has stolen. It speaks to him in ways that the humans in his life, even those closest to him, cannot.

It isn’t until he meets James Hobart, Hobie, an antique restorer and friend of Welty’s, and is reunited with Pippa that a semblance of meaning, if not hope, enters his life. But even this is transitory as Theo is at the whim of forces he cannot control and so his life is taken on journeys, undergoes trajectories he can neither navigate or foresee and, on the way, he collides and connects with others: his recalcitrant father, the ebullient and wonderfully strange Boris, the aloof but kind Barbours. Anchoring him on the ride his life becomes is his great secret, the object that has come to fill the hole left by the absence of those he loves.

From New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, from high society to the seedy underworld of crime and shady deals, drugs and booze, the novel follows Theo from his teens to his late twenties. Exquisitely written, it is a story I could not put down. Tartt’s ability to enter the mind and hearts of adolescents and adults is acute and heartfelt. Often philosophical and littered with references from popular and ‘high’ culture, the reader is swept along in the currents and eddies of Theo’s life in much the way he is. Filled with rich and complex characters, humour in surprising places, touching scenes that wring the heart and others that leave you frustrated and discontent, there is never a dull moment and, frankly, I was astonished by a few readers’ reviews that declared nothing happened in this novel. It may centre on a character who fundamentally embraces nihilism – or attempts to – but everything happens in this book. Everything that makes us human, that drives our needs, desires and hopes is explored. It seeks to understand what is free will, what is determinism. It ponders the great questions that have entertained and confounded philosophers since Aristotle, questions about life and death and meaning. It also asks, do we make our own luck or misfortune or is it somehow predestined? It is a morally and ethically complex novel that among many notions teases out the idea: do good acts necessarily lead to good outcomes and vice-a-versa? What if the wrong or bad decision can lead to the right ending? Or a good one bring about catastrophe? Does that make the entire choice or the person making it evil or their choice necessarily wrong? These are questions characters unconsciously embrace and finally ask outright. It’s left to us, the reader, to decide whether or not the answers are worthy or right (or not).

A fantastic story that lingers in the heart and head and which, like the object at its centre and the young man who obsesses over it, captivates you and whispers, “I have been written for you alone.” (Something that will make sense once you have read this utterly beautiful and haunting tale). Cannot recommend highly enough.


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Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

I bought this book after it came up as a recommendation on Amazon. Having not long finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the blurb and reviews (which linked it to Atkinson’s work and The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I also loved) sealed the deal for me. I’d never heard of the author, Andrew Sean Greer, but after reading Greta Wells story, I will be seThe Impossible Lives of Greta Wellseking out his other novels… But for the moment, I want to savour this one.

This is a simply lovely, haunting book that tells the story of Greta Wells, a young woman in New York in 1985 whose beloved twin brother, Felix, is dying of the scourge of the 1980s on, AIDS. Tha
t is never articulated, but it is evident. Greta lives with her doctor partner, Nathan, and her eccentric aunt, Rita, lives downstairs. Grieving for her brother, she

is sent to a specialist who recommends she has ECT and so she does and the impossible happens – Greta is flung into not one other version of her life, but two – 1919 and 1941.

In these two other periods, the dead come back to life, possibilities are within reach and tragedy can yet unfold. Segueing between three lives (she returns to the novel’s present as well) and maintaining awareness of all three, Greta learns that perhaps she can become the woman she always thought she could be… Only, she discovers, who you are is also contingent on the time you’re born in and the choices available to you and though Greta understands the choices she and her other selves should make, never mind her brother and other characters, life isn’t that simple…especially not when a war has just concluded, another is unresolved and where a plague strikes down those you love.

I can see why this book has been compared to Atkinson and TTTW, it shares some of the tropes and themes but, Greer himself uses Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy and Neverland as analogies and there is a sense in which these are far more apt. There is something both mythical and magical (as well as tragic and triumphant) about Greta’s lives. She is like Alice down the rabbit hole or consuming food and drink that alters her perspective. She is Dorothy, whisked away from certainty and the known to the unfamiliar and dangerously marvellous. While she time travels and thus carries with her knowledge and awareness of the future that can be earth-shattering and life changing in the macrocosmic sense, this story isn’t concerned with that. On the contrary, Greta cares only for the way larger issues (war, sexuality, disease, prejudice, ethnicity,love, fidelity, truth) impacts upon those she loves and her immediate lives – the microcosmic – and, in that sense, there is a veracity to this book despite its fantastical premise and the massive suspension of disbelief the author requires of the reader. It is one we happily make because the characters and their story – which is personal, yes, but also ripples outwards to envelop us all – are worth investing in and their concerns are that which we all ponder and try to realize in varying degrees.

Written in lilting, lovely prose, the philosophical musings of Greta touch on eternal questions of love and life and purpose. What do we deserve? Are we all entitled to happiness? Is context everything? Can we alter these things and should we even if we can?

This is a book that lingers in the heart and soul long after you put it down. So glad I read it and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a damn fine and meaningful read. I didn’t want it to finish.

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