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

Everyone’s talking about this book, and it has to be said that I’m not the sort of person who reads the books that everyone is talking about (case in point, ’50 Shades of Nonsense’). However, I saw the author in person a few months ago and, you know, he was kinda hot, so I gave in to the hype and decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.

SAM_3947

This is the US edition that I picked up on holiday.

I cannot remember the last time that I was so absorbed in a book that I actually switched off my Netflix. I was so desperate to see how the book ended that I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night/Monday morning (knowing full well I would suffer at work the next day) just inhaling the book. That I am a slow reader is a fact. That I finished this 640 page novel in one busy weekend is another fact. This is such an effortless read, the pages simply turn themselves.

If you’re not one of those people talking about this book, then let me give you a bit of background information. The book was first published in France in 2012 and has since sold over 2 million copies, been translated into over 30 languages and has also won some literary prizes in France. Plus, the writer is only now 28 years old and looks like this:

I have come across uglier writers.

I have come across uglier writers. (c) Jeremy Spierer

Anyhow, back to the book. Marcus Goldman is our lazy but likeable protagonist who has achieved continuous success throughout his life, due to the very simple fact that he only competes in situations where he’s guaranteed to win, against people who he knows to be weaker than he is (and the one time he saw that he was not going to win a race, he chose to deliberately break his leg rather than allow the illusion of “Marcus the Magnificent” to be tarnished):

In order to be magnificent, all that was needed was to distort the way others perceived me; in the end, everything was a question of appearances.’

The book opens in New York in the spring of 2008 where Marcus is experiencing severe writer’s block. His publishers are on his case and are threatening to sue if he doesn’t deliver the follow up to his wildly successful debut. In search of inspiration, Marcus goes to New Hampshire to visit his old college professor and mentor, Harry Quebert, a novelist still famous for a single book he wrote in the 70s. This trip doesn’t work for Marcus’s creativity so he goes back to New York, resigned to the fact that his career is now over.

Except, a few weeks later,  he receives an urgent call from his agent urging him to switch on the TV. Harry’s in trouble and is all over the news: The body of a 15 year old girl who went missing 33 years ago has been found buried in his back yard. Buried with her is the original manuscript of Harry’s famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Maybe, now, Marcus has something to write about. Harry is quickly arrested and admits to having had an affair with the young girl. The national media hang him out to dry – not only is he a murderer, but a paedophile to boot. There is one thing though: Harry swears to Marcus that he did not kill Nola Kellergan, in fact, she was the love of his life. Marcus, eager to clear his friend’s name, heads back to New Hampshire to start his own investigation into what really happened on August 30, 1975, the day Nola went missing, the day the little town of Somerset, New Hampshire lost its innocence.

SAM_3959On the surface, Somerset is a quaint little New England town, but as the investigation progresses, one has to wonder if, perhaps, Somerset hadn’t lost its innocence long before Nola went missing. Marcus stays in Harry’s house receiving threatening mail as he continues to uncover the truth about the affair, writing his surefire bestseller as he goes along. This novel is as much about publishing and the writing process as it is about the Kellergan murder (very self-reflexive, metafictional stuff). There’s an interesting cast of characters here, a couple of which were slightly exaggerated and caricaturish, but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud at the (often dark) humour exhibited in their conversations. There’s the chauffeur with a distorted face, the pastor with the Harley motorbike and, of course, the seemingly unknowable Nola Kellergen herself, the object of Harry’s obsession. I was often struck by how young Nola came across. She would accuse Harry of being ‘mean’ to her and once said of God, “If you believe in Him, I will too.” On these occasions I found it difficult to understand why Harry was so consumed by her, why ‘once she had entered [his] life, the world could no longer turn properly without her.’ How could an academic have a relationship with someone so naive and childlike? But then we are told by a Somerset local:

 ‘That girl was madly in love with Harry. What she felt for him was something I had never felt myself, or I couldn’t remember ever having felt, for my own wife. And it was at that moment that I realised, thanks to a fifteen-year-old girl, that I had probably never been in love. That lots of people have never been in love. That they make do with good intentions; that they hide away in the comfort of a crummy existence and shy away from that amazing feeling that is probably the only thing that justifies being alive.’

The narrative flicks back and forth between 1975 and 2008, slowly piecing the facts together. Or at least what we believe to be facts. There are so many twists and turns in this novel so be warned that as soon as you’re convinced of one thing, several chapters later you will learn something new that weakens your conviction. This is your classic whodunnit at its best. There are 31 chapters in this book, and Dicker has very cleverly started off with chapter 31, making the reader work their way down to chapter 1 where we finally find out:

The million dollar question

The million dollar question

The last chapter is filled with pleasing revelations that allow everything to finally lock into place. It is only then that you’re able to let out the breath that you didn’t even realise you were holding.

I, personally, didn’t understand why everyone made such a big deal about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘. I’ll admit that I haven’t read it, but I did recently watch the film on a rainy Netflix weekend and was left perplexed as the end credits rolled: the big twist in this blockbuster thriller is that the girl who everyone thought was dead had actually escaped in the boot of a car? Really?! That was Larsson’s great achievement? If critics have time to commend Larsson, then the same (actually, more) credit is due to Dicker. His story is much more layered, more intriguing and a hell of a lot more clever. Fact.

The British critics haven’t been very nice about this book (pretty brutal, actually), and I don’t think they’re being fair to Dicker. I do imagine that some of the elegance of the prose was lost in translation so, yes, there were one or two occasions when I felt the writing felt a bit basic (descriptive passages in particular), where the dialogue didn’t ring quite true, but did this detract from my overall enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I was, honestly, gripped. I sighed through my weekend engagements, my eyes lingering longingly on the book nestled in my bag, made my excuses to leave early and kept reading as I changed lines on the tube, unapologetically bumping into people as I walked. I just HAD to to know what would happen next, I had to finish it. And was then sad when I did. In the words of Harry Quebert:

The ending of a good book

The ending of a good book

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly plotted murder mystery, cleverly constructed. Though it might not be as literary as the French claimed it was, it ultimately does not matter because it’s a bloody good read.

Advertisements

Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2013 Revealed

Source: granta.com

I bet you’re wondering who made the cut? Maybe you’re not; maybe you actually have a life or something. I was, personally, quite excited because David Szalay (a very unassuming young man that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting) made it. Aside from him and a few others (Zadie Smith – AGAIN! – maybe it’s about time I dusted off one of her books and actually read them instead of assuming I’ll hate them), my reaction to this list was ‘eh?’ I, genuinely, have no idea who some of these people are, and I have only read books by three writers on this list (Szalay, Benjamin Markovits and Xiaolu Guo). Here’s the list in all its glory….your thoughts??

Adam Foulds

Evie Wyld

Adam Thirlwell

Zadie Smith

Naomi Alderman

Sarah Hall

Steven Hall

Ross Raisin

David Szalay

Sunjeev Sahota

Xiaolu Guo

Kamila Shamsie

Ned Beauman

Tahmima Anam

Nadifa Mohamed

Taiye Selasi

Joanna Kavenna

Benjamin Markovits

Jenni Fagan

Helen Oyeyemi

Most of the commentary since the announcement earlier this evening has been on how diverse the list is, and that, I think is great. To define Britishness is so very difficult these days so I think this list reflects that. Here is an interesting article written by a member of the judging panel, explaining their year-long selection process. Maybe it’s not so bad that I don’t know the majority of the featured novelists, maybe that’s the whole point. When the next list comes out in 2023, I’ll have discovered these writers and they may have earned a space or two on my overcrowded bookshelf.

New York Times 10 Best Books of 2012….meh

So I wasn’t blown away by this list if I’m honest. I’m not eager to buy any of these titles though I do own Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’ (it was a free book acquired during an internship; can’t say no to a free book). The only books from this year that I’m eager to read are ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach and ‘This Is How You Lose Her’ by Junot Diaz. What have been your favourite books of this year (if any)? Or like me, do you find that you read random and sometimes obscure books from any time period?

Book Review: Alice by Judith Hermann

After reading and enjoying Other Lives But Mine a month or so ago, I thought I’d give literature in translation another go. This time I thought I’d venture to Germany and picked up a book called Alice by a widely read writer called Judith Hermann. I’d be lying if I said the breathtaking cover didn’t play a large part in my decision. I honestly cannot get over this cover, so damned beautiful!

So maybe all European writers have a particular interest in mortality, because funnily enough, this book is ALSO a contemplation on death. It tells of waiting for death to come, of when it occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, of the silence that comes from the questions left unanswered for decades when a person takes their own life, and primarily of what is left behind after death.

The novella is made up of five different interconnected narratives, five separate stories brought together by Alice, the central character whose life is punctuated with instances of death. Each section is named after the person who is either dead or dying in the story. It’s very postmodern in style, with very sparse almost bare prose, and with this direct style of writing, there is no explanation of how Alice may know the people we encounter in these stories. Some small inferences may be made, but much is left to the reader to fill in for themselves. This can be a little disorientating, which is how I feel you’re meant to feel when reading postmodern literature.

This book is about death, yet in a way it skirts around the actual occurrence itself, instead detailing the mundane, the specifics of everyday life, never attempting to describe emotion or anything much beyond facts. In its listing of banalities it somehow normalises death, makes death a part of everyday life, something that happens between swimming in a lake and buying ice cream from a petrol station (which I suppose it is).

An example of this is in the story, ‘Malte’. Alice arranges to meet up with someone from her late uncle Malte’s past; her uncle who killed himself before Alice was even born. The account of this meeting is meticulously detailed in its awkwardness, yet we learn nothing more about the reasons for her uncle’s suicide. However, there are minute snippets of information that can lead you to your own conclusions as to what may have happened all those years ago. And so this is how Judith Hermann speaks – without words.

There was a part of the final story that really did resonate with me, however. Alice is sorting through the things of someone who was central to her life when in a jacket pocket she comes across a crumpled bakery bag with a half-eaten almond horn in it. Such a small, trivial thing all of a sudden becomes significant. Little pockets of someone’s life left behind in their literal pockets, evidence that this person was once a living breathing human being. They once went to bakeries and ate almond horns. They are now reduced to things and memories and anecdotes. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this will make a lot of sense.

After reading the book, despite the entire thing being from her point of view, you don’t feel like you know Alice at all. You only have a vague outline of the person she may be, but even that is a stretch. I appreciate that this is indeed intentional and the point of the whole postmodern thing, but I found it be unsettling. It was perhaps a little too reserved and devoid of feeling for me, though I appreciate that this is in fact what many will love about it.

I’m sure many critics would say that her complete detachment and almost matter of fact way of describing events is what makes this novel such a great accomplishment, for the power of the narrative lies in what is left unsaid. An essay I could have written for a class in university would have probably said something along those lines too, but now, reading without a motive makes me question whether we can rate a writer for what they do not write, for the gaps they leave in their narrative for their readers to fill in? Can we?

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: An Ambiguous Review

If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened.

She saw me kissing her father.

She saw her father kissing me.

The fact that a child got mixed up in it all made us feel that it mattered, that there was no going back.

I’m not sure how I feel about Anne Enright. This is the second of her books that I’ve read (technically 1.5 as I couldn’t quite finish the first) and although this book is miles better than her Booker prize winning The Gathering and has given me a glimpse into the reason why she’s rated so highly, there is still something that’s holding me back a little.

The Forgotten Waltz

The Forgotten Waltz is about adultery; about an affair between two married people, Gina and Sean. Set in Ireland, the entire story is told with hindsight and from Gina’s perspective, so we know from the beginning how this ends. But the story is still charged with us wanting to know how they got there, how this affair started, and how it developed.

Anne Enright writes well, there’s no doubt about that. Some of the passages in here really did take my breath away. She says things that are completely unexpected, but upon reflection, are things so true:

‘…I think how kissing is such an extravagance of nature. Like bird-song; heartfelt and lovely beyond any possible usefulness.’

How beautiful is that? Her depiction of the middle classes is also infuriatingly accurate and brought a smile to my face several times. For example, ‘The room where they slept was white…it was done in horribly similar, crucially different shades of f*cking white.’, and also ‘it was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.’ I laughed at the obscurity of such a remark, but then instantly understood what she meant. These are self-consciously middle class people with middle class concerns, and in truly capturing the nuances of this world, Enright has succeeded.

Gina is very matter of fact, almost dispassionate when speaking of Sean and of the affair, an affair confined to the space of a hotel room, ‘we were only normal for the twelve foot by fourteen of a hotel room. Outside, in the open air, we would evaporate.’ She speaks as though Sean and the affair were these giant forces that were beyond her control:

But once we begun, how were we supposed to stop? This sounds like a simple question, but I still don’t know the answer to it. I mean that we had started something that could not be ended, except by happening. It could not be stopped, but only finished.

But it was hard for me to believe that someone so seemingly indifferent about something would sacrifice so much in order to attain it. She’s a walking contradiction; one minute repulsed by Sean and the next minute almost stalking him in true bunny-boiler fashion. She ultimately finds that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side: It’s pretty much the same colour, just a different type of blade. But I couldn’t reconcile this supposedly epiphanic realisation with someone as smart and cynical as Gina – surely a previously married woman would know that the romance and excitement of a new relationship soon slips into the ordinary?! All the more so if the other adulterer in question has a child. Come on. This is Adultery and Deciding to Leave Your Spouse 101.

A common thread in Enright’s work is the way in which her stories start off in a fascinating way and then they slowly begin to falter and stagnate. The momentum is not kept up, but the beauty of the actual writing (in this book anyway) keeps you going. And Gina is a very interesting narrator. You might call her unreliable, but she goes out of her way to remind you that what she’s telling you may not be what actually occurred, and that her recollections are doused in a self-interested subjectivity. And you can’t help but be grateful for the extent she goes to to prevent the oversimplification of the motivations behind this affair.

The 5 Books You Take to Heaven…

I’ve recently been overwhelmed by the number of books on my bookshelf and by how many I’m yet to read. And I started thinking, if it all came to an end and I was only allowed to take 5 books through the Gates of Heaven with me, which would I take? Tough decisions and ruthless cuts to be made.

My first two choices were a no-brainer,

1) We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin

2) American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho

American Psycho

Both really fascinating books that I’m sure a lot of you have already read, so I’m not going to go into much detail. I’ve read both of them about two or three times already and each time I read them it’s as if it were for the first time. I think a good book is one where with each read you discover something you haven’t noticed before, and one that also doesn’t offer answers but affirms that seeking them is a necessary part of our humanity. And my opinions of both Kevin Katchadourian and Patrick Bateman, in Shriver’s and Ellis’s novels respectively, are not solid, they’re always changing and I still don’t fully understand them and their motivations; that’s why I keep reading.

The rest of my choices were a little harder to pinpoint. You kinda have to be tactful about this because your favourite books aren’t necessarily the most obvious of choices. And presumably you also wanna laugh whilst you’re in heaven (or hell, whichever direction you’re likely to be heading in, haha). So, with that in mind, my next two choices are:

3)      E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont

E: A Novel

E: A Novel

I know E is probably a highly obscure choice, but that book is one of VERY few where I’ve found myself constantly laughing out loud or smiling to myself, even on train commutes where people just eye you awkwardly. The entire book is made up of emails between backstabbing colleagues at an advertising firm in central London. There are very few writers who can capture tone and dialogue like this. I’m not sure if the humour is explicitly British and so therefore less funny for others, but Beaumont really captures the true dynamics of an office (anywhere in the world) with ragingly funny characters (ones that we recognise from our own offices) that will remain with me for a very long time. Completely unputdownable; absolutely brilliant.

4) Magical Thinking: True Stories – Augusten Burroughs

Magical Thinking

Magical Thinking

I was very recently reminded of Augusten Burroughs when reading Jaclyn’s blog (an Augusten Burroughs super fan) and what she says about him is so true, that I realise I couldn’t go to heaven without one of his books in my bag. You read just one of Augusten’s books, and the refreshing ease with which he writes makes you instantly want to know what else he’s written. The most obvious choice would have been his memoir, Running with Scissors (because you really can’t make his childhood story up), but I think the numerous short stories in Magical Thinking would keep me company for longer, dipping in and out of the random hilariousness of his darkly amusing stories. He’s witty, sarcastic, self-centred and very honest. Can’t go wrong.

5)      Which Brings Me to You – Julianna Baggott & Steve Almond

Which Brings Me to You

Which Brings Me to You

You might not have heard of this book before, but I figure heaven wouldn’t be much fun without a little bit of romance.

Jane and John (yes, really) are of the same kind: ‘I’m not sure there’s a name for us. I suspect we’re born this way: our hearts screwed in tight, already a little broken. We hate sentimentality and yet we’re deeply sentimental. Low-grade Romantics. Tough but susceptible.’

They meet at a wedding and have nameless almost-sex in the coat room. Before proceeding, they decide to exchange letters and tell each other everything about their romantic pasts. In alternating chapters, we learn of the experiences that brought them to this point and if, when they finally meet again, the unflinching truth has been too much: ‘My past is littered with regret, and I’d rather not add you to it. I’d rather not have to fit you into an overcrowded memory.’

This is one of those rare things that is romantic fiction written to a high standard (E.L. James take note). This is romance for the jaded generation, quietly witty and cynically optimistic.

I’ve tried to keep it to 5, but as this is my list I can change the rules when I like, and I’d like to add one more book as a backup. Just in case my bags get lost on the journey or something.

6)      Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

Don't Let Me Be Lonely

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

I had to read this in one of my poetry classes back in university and it’s just really stuck with me. Difficult to place this in a specific genre, but it’s written in prose, not verse, and could even be described as an essay; but let’s call it poetry for the purpose of this post.

It’s quite political in nature, has a focus on loneliness and death, and is also quite critical of American society and the idea of The Self that exists in contemporary America. It’s thoroughly engaging, beautifully written and the ideas she explores are really challenging.

Here’s an example from an extract where she’s visiting the Museum of Emotions in London, and she has to play a game, in which she is asked “Were you terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died?”:

‘I told the truth and stepped on the NO tile. I was not allowed to continue. The museum employee, who must have had a thing with shame, looked away as I stepped down. Walking out, I couldn’t help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive, to anyone outside of her friends and family – truly? The English were very distraught over her death. On the television they showed thousands of mourners leaving flowers in front of the palace. Weren’t they mourning the protection they felt she should have had? A protection they’ll never have? Weren’t they simply grieving the random inevitability of their own deaths?’

Like I said, it gets you thinking; really fascinating stuff.

So that’s my reading list for heaven. Something for every mood. So I wanna know, what’s your 5??

The Sense Behind the Booker Prize Winner

How reliable is human memory? This is the central preoccupation of this unassuming yet fascinating book by Julian Barnes.

Beautiful black edging

Beautiful black edging

The paperback edition of the book is simply beautiful. The pages are edged in black that bleeds off from the cover like running ink; a book that has what I like to call great ‘shelf power’ and will look even better with age; a keeper. Definitely not one for the kindle.

You always expect the winner of the Booker to be rather hefty but this is a slim volume (a novella?). With this book, every word counts, it’s concise. For lack of a better word, it is an elegant book made up of beautifully constructed prose. I read it in one sitting on a gloomy Saturday.

Tony is a retired man who’s satisfied with ordinariness; a life of holidays and mowing lawns. In the first half of the book, Tony recounts his final days at school and the memories of a particular friend, Adrian, and then of his relationship with Veronica during his time at university. The second half brings us to the present and the receipt of a bequest from Veronica’s mother, recently passed away and who met Tony only briefly on an uncomfortable weekend many decades before.

The illusion of memory

The illusion of memory

This brings Veronica back into Tony’s life and we begin to question his reliability, what he has just told of his past, undermined. He is now forced to re-evaluate the events of his past, and sets out to discover what really happened all those years ago, and to what extent he was responsible for what transpired. Our desire to know what exactly happened propels the narrative to a surprising and contemplative conclusion.

The Sense of an Ending explores the notion of memory and how it cannot be trusted, that it is indeed constructed. We believe what we want to believe and the longer we live, there are fewer people (witnesses) who are able to contradict us, so this belief then becomes the truth. This notion that we can edit our histories, and by extension our lives, is truly fascinating.

'We tell ourselves stories in order to live.'

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’

This book has honestly had me questioning my life; my version of events so to speak. I’m pretty sure that my past isn’t how I’ve remembered it, it is how I’ve wanted to remember it.

I remember the amazing writer Joan Didion once saying, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ And so we do. Do we?

Visiting Jennifer Egan’s ‘Goon Squad’.

You know a book is good when you’re asked to describe it and the first words that come out of your mouth are ‘I can’t even tell you what it’s about…’ This is precisely how I’ve been responding to questions about Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’.

do know how to construct a basic sentence (more or less), but in my defence, even the publishers (Corsair, Constable & Robinson) seemed to have a hard time explaining. This brings me to Exhibit A, the book’s blurb (which is vague at best):

“…vividly captures the moments where lives interact, and where fortunes ebb and flow. Egan depicts […] the sad consequences for those who couldn’t fake it during their wild youth – madness, suicide or prison – in this captivating, wryly humorous story of temptation and loss.”

Yeah. What did I say?

The book is split into 13 chapters, each dedicated to a single character. These characters are so random, and their lives equally so, yet the subtle way in which Egan links one to the other is so precise, so surprising, so utterly perfect.

You move from the life of a record producer with no sex drive, to a kleptomaniac half-heartedly seeking help, to that of a dictator’s publicist etc. You can’t make this stuff up. The book is funny; there’s no doubt about it, but it’s a dark humour that underlines the undeniable pathos of the characters’ lives. It’s so bizarre, yet so real.

I highly recommend this, if only to hear you say to someone else ‘I can’t even tell you what it’s about.’

If you’ve read this already, let me know what you thought! Only if you can articulate this of course! haha

The Goon Squad

The Goon Squad