REVIEW: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

‘A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished.’

p. 613, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

So says the titular Harry Quebert in one of his many “life lessons” that preface The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair‘s chapters. By its own definition then this is not a good book. I was not sorry to finish this book, I was sorry I ever started it. If it weren’t for my compulsive need to find out exactly “whodunnit” and how at the end of every murder mystery I pick up I most likely would have abandoned Truth within the first one hundred pages for its problems are evident from fairly early on.

Truth begins with its protagonist, successful young writer Marcus Goldman, wallowing in writer’s block. Searching for inspiration he goes to visit his college mentor, Harry Quebert, writer of arguably the best novel of the twentieth century. Eventually, a body is found in Harry’s garden and he is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergan, a fifteen year old girl who disappeared in 1975. Marcus then sets out to prove his friend’s innocence and possibly write his next bestseller while he’s at it.

SPOILER WARNING: Under the ‘Read More’ this article contains major spoilers for the plot of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. However, as I would not recommend actually reading this book, feel free to continue.

Weighing in at over 600 pages, Truth‘s door-stopper length is simply too long to sustain a compelling murder mystery. As a result plot developments are eked out slowly and interspersed with flashbacks until the last one hundred pages in which so many plot twists are revealed that this section of the novel bears little resemblance to the plodding plot that preceded it. Early flashbacks to Marcus’ childhood and college years ought to work to establish his character and the depth of his relationship to Harry, on which many of his actions will rely. However, the novel is somewhat hamstrung by the fact that they instead establish the manipulative ‘Marcus the Magnificent’ as unlikable, selfish, and borderline sociopathic. The scenes between he and Harry seem intended to demonstrate how Harry taught him to take risks and become a better, less self-centered person, however, Marcus’ account of his success at the beginning of Truth suggest he is still callous and shallow, undermining how important Harry’s influence on him should feel.

Moreover, the characterisation of both Harry and Marcus suffers from too much informed ability; the reader is constantly told of what great writers they are, their intelligence, and their good looks. While Marcus’ informed greatness is somewhat countered by his unpleasant personality and poor social skills, Dicker seems reluctant to commit to a truly unlikable protagonist. Marcus is placed into conflict primarily with only the most caricatured characters, such as his politically incorrect agent Roth and his nagging mother. Later, his actions incur the dislike of many other characters, only for him to be forgiven easily by most because of his “greatness” as a writer.

However, Truth‘s largest characterisation problem comes in the form of Nola Kellergan, the enigmatic victim at the centre of its plot. Nola’s character is extremely underdeveloped, a fact that initially works in the novel’s favour as she is described only from the perspective of others and her actions and motivations remain murky. Nevertheless, Nola begins to suffer from the same problems as Harry and Marcus; characters frequently talk about how wonderful she was and nearly every male character reveals their attraction to her. This saccharine image is paired with hints towards a darker side to her personality, but the eventual hackneyed reveal that she suffered from a Norman Bates-esque multiple personality disorder is disappointingly laughable and fails to add any real complexity to her character.

Moreover, the writing for Nola is shallow and sexist as her character and motivations are defined solely around her romantic relationship with Harry and her desire to please him. Despite Dicker’s attempts to inform us that theirs is the greatest of loves, this relationship, like every other element of the book, is horribly underdeveloped. Harry’s love for Nola appears to be based on her appreciation of seagulls and rain and because she is willing to cook and clean for him while he writes his novel. Nola’s attraction to Harry is never made particularly clear, but is presumably based on her belief that he is a great writer. The flimsiness of this “romance” reflects poorly on both the characterisation of Harry and Nola and the plot that is structured around it. Nevertheless, the worst aspect of the Harry/Nola relationship comes in the text’s explicit romanticisation of ephebophilia. The exaggeration of society’s pearl-clutching reaction to Harry’s relationship with Nola establishes a dangerously romanticised “us-against-the-world” narrative, which is later compounded by several major characters referring to their “love” as pure and inspirational, including, in what is perhaps the book’s most offensive paragraph, the sole homosexual character in the novel. The need to have characters speak explicitly about how touching and admirable their feelings towards one another were merely emphasises how badly written the actual relationship and interactions between the two are.

Sadly, there is actually a decent mystery somewhere in Truth. While the eventual reveal that Nola was not the intended target of her murder is not an original twist, it is unexpected. I wish Dicker would have focused more heavily on the unsettling darkness of seemingly wholesome small-town America which is hinted at in some scenes as it provides an interesting backdrop to a case which deals heavily with prejudice and perversity. The deconstruction of Harry Quebert’s character from successful and admired mentor to disgraced and pathetic fraud also detracts from his overwhelming blandness in the early pages, but would have been better executed if his relationship with Nola was given the scorn it deserves. Ultimately, the character of Marcus and the overly-literary conventions of book extracts, quotes on the art of writing, and backwards chapter numbering employed in its framework appear superfluous in a novel that would work better if it was more tightly focused on its central mystery and the tensions of its setting.

Rating: 1/5 –  The writing of the central characters and their relationships is shallow and relies too heavily on tropes. While there is an interesting, but barely explored, theme here and what with better characterisation could be a halfway decent mystery, they are layered underneath too much pretension and offensiveness to be enjoyed.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was translated into English by Sam Taylor. 

Featured Image: Detail from Portrait of Orleans by Edward Hopper

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