Already a publishing sensation in Europe, Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (Penguin) is one of those books everyone has been talking about. It’s a novel held aloft by a lot of hype, and much of it is even deserved. It reads fast. It’s got an intricate plot, and it’s been compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — though in truth it has none of that book’s urgency or bowstring tautness or even its unspeakable violence. What it does have is a boatload of characters you come to care about and a story that will keep you guessing. It even tries to give itself some meaning. What more could you want?
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a novel about perception. Dicker, in his first novel, reveals that he is a master at creating perception based on perspective. Whereas most novels are told from one point of view, this one is told in several, all happening at once — or what seems like at once.
The plot centers on three people: Marcus Goldman, a young novelist whose college professor inspired him to become a writer; Harry Quebert, the professor, a successful novelist now enjoying his twilight years; and Nola Kellergan, the young woman Harry loved, but who was murdered 33 years ago, leaving him alone and destroyed.
The story jumps back and forth in time constantly between 2008 and events leading up to Nola’s murder in 1970. In short, filmic scenes, we spend a lot of time with all three of them, as well as with many other members of the small New Hampshire town where they live. Much of the book follows Marcus’s investigation into Nola’s murder, trying to uncover secrets that both bind the town together and threaten to rip it apart at the seams. We read many parts of the story over and over again, from different points of view, and each time a new detail or motivation or lie is revealed. There are assumptions, there are lies, there’s regret, there are actions and consequences, and there is, eventually, truth. They say that there are three versions of any story: what I think happened, what you think happened, and what actually happened. This book is about all three, except there are more like twenty.
This is why I say the book is about perception. There can be only one truth about who murdered Nola — as well as why and how — but the novel offers up many of them before we finally learn the one that really matters. Dicker’s gift is that he doesn’t seem to be playing with the reader; instead, he’s having fun with his characters, and we’re just watching. He knows these people, and he wants them to know the solution as much as they themselves do — and as much as we do.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is terrific fun — and it deserves a place in your beach bag.
Now, having said all that, I also have to stand back and wonder why I wasn’t blown away, as I thought I would be — and as the hype assured me I would be. As involving as it is, I have to admit that sometimes this book is written in a way that makes what’s happening in Somerset sound like a badly written arc of As the World Turns. I attribute this, at least some of it, to the translator. His take has turned what could have been a tight, relentless thriller into a book that’s, well, not so thrilling. Captivating, yes. Fun, yes. But shocking, disturbing, dark, like Steig Larsson’s trilogy? No.
The action unfolds at a few key locations: the town’s diner, Marcus’ house (he borrows it from Harry), another house or two, the roads in and around town. You get the whole small-townness of the setting, the closing of the ranks as an outsider comes poking around. There’s serious threat, and there are serious secrets that beg to be uncovered once the clues are assembled. But they’re assembled, it all comes to a close so nicely. So neatly. What I wanted was a loose end or two. I wanted messiness, especially from such a messy tale.
Peppered throughout are tidbits about writing gleaned from conversations Harry had with Marcus when Marcus was his student. Harry tells him how to write a novel, a novel people will lose themselves in, a novel people will talk about. Much of the advice makes sense, and I suppose Dicker follows all the advice well, because I was drawn in, intrigued, and pretty well satisfied. But still, except for a few choice moments, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair feels very surface to me, very shallow, and that’s a shame. Because I think it’s more than that, and I think Dicker set out to do more than that. In a way, the tidbits, while interesting, undermine the tale they’re meant to illuminate. They’re almost a series of winks from the author that in some small way taint the novel itself. They don’t break the fourth wall, but they very nearly do, the way, say, blood spatters on a camera lens remind you that you’re watching a movie, when that’s the last thing you want.
Le Journal du Dimanche, in France, said: “If you dip your toes into this major novel, you’re finished; you won’t be able to keep from sprinting through to the last page.” The sprinting part is true. But to call The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair a major novel is the problem. It’s big, at 643 pages. But major? I wish.