The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker
Reviewed by Molly
Move over Millennium Trilogy, Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is about to hit the US after becoming a massive bestseller in France, Italy and Germany. While I get excited about any book that manages to cross the ocean and make it into English, this one is particularly fascinating.
The author, originally from Geneva, spent his summers in Maine growing up. The book is set in New Hampshire, but the author is clearly returning to the New England of his youth. Even though the book was originally written in French, you can hear the American speech patterns that were embedded in the original French and then retranslated back into English. Dicker focuses on creating as plainspoken a novel as possible, trying to replicate the diction of his New England childhood while veering away from the complex sentence structures of his native French. This lends the story a curious literary blankness to its prose. Slang is not sprinkled willy-nilly into the tale, instead each phrase has a weight of deliberate decision to it.
You can read this book as a revealing exploration of French opinions on American culture, politics, and religion. Joel Dicker follows in the tradition of William Faulkner and Philip Roth, and much of the novel reads as a Southern Gothic transplanted onto a northern vacation town. The story starts with Marcus Goldman, a young author who has written one bestseller and can’t seem to write anything else. He turns to his mentor, author Harry Quebert, and goes to visit him in Quebert’s sleepy refuge.
Marcus finds more than a mentor when he arrives. Old secrets come to the fore as the body of a girl gone missing thirty years before is found buried beneath Quebert’s hydrangeas. Literally everyone in the town becomes either a suspect or is revealed as an accomplice as the murder investigation brings out the revelation that Quebert and Nola had been chastely seeing each other previous to her disappearance.
The central persona of the story is not Quebert or Goldman, but Nola. I say persona rather than character because she is not so much a character as an object of fascination, by the press, the town, and finally, Marcus Goldman, who cures his block by joining the media circus to write about Quebert and Kellergan in hopes of clearing Quebert’s name. The enigmatic character of Nola is deliberately blank. Her purpose for most of the characters is that of muse, and her youth helps to justify her essentially unfinished character. She is complicit in her lack of agency. Rather than struggling to define herself, Nola instead helps others with their own work. Her entrance into adult life inspires Quebert’s book, and her startling exit inspires Goldman’s, yet she herself is defined only by the reactions of others– the perfect muse.
Nola the character is traumatized by a complex home life, exploited by a series of men who claim to love her, and finally, betrayed by the entire town’s failure to protect her. And yet she does hold on to some agency. Her voice is slow to be revealed, but she eventually shows herself to be as complex and problematic a character as any other in the book.
Dicker’s novel comes in at a whopping 640 pages, but don’t worry about the length – he keeps his plot moving at a steady pace and ramps up slowly over the last three hundred pages to one of the most satisfying conclusions I have ever found in a mystery novel.
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