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home : features : features May 4, 2016

4/23/2014 10:14:00 AM
On the Bookshelf: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

Reviewed by Katie Capaldi, Between the Covers

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin Books, $18.00)

If we are in the honest sort of mood when a customer asks, "What are you reading right now?", we will likely respond with an answer along the lines of, "This really great book . . . but it won't be released for a couple of months." It is one of the many perks of being a bookseller, this chance to read books before they make their way onto our shelves. It gives us the ability to share our enthusiasm with the books' publishers, authors, sales reps and with you. This advance access to books is sometimes a double-edged sword, for we always run the risk that our customers will forget about these titles by the time they see publication (again, here comes that honesty: we also run the risk that we too will forget about these titles). It is tricky to sell a book that we cannot physically put into your hands. So this conversation about what we are reading becomes a carefully choreographed advance and retreat. We must hint at what is to come, but then step backwards into books that we can hand over right now. I am convinced that one day, research will prove that bookselling is an ideal way to keep the brain young. But that is a discussion for another day.

What I ask of you today is this: please, please do not forget about this book. Clip this out. Keep it somewhere safe. Or better yet, call the store and ask to have a copy reserved for you. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair will go on sale on May 27th, and promises to be a thrilling start to your summer reading. The novel has already seen tremendous popularity across all reading tastes in Europe and will soon take the states by storm as well.

So, what is the truth about the Harry Quebert affair? Well, goodness, you don't want me to spoil the ending for you! Let's start at the beginning, shall we? We readers enter the story on August 30, 1975. For all intents and purposes, this is the day that forever casts a pall over the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire. It is the day that the bright, cheerful and beautiful 15-year-old, Nola Kellergan is spotted momentarily fleeing through the woods, covered in blood, and then disappears from sight. As with all histories, however, there are events that came before and there are events which follow these single turning points. Both the past and the future hold truths which will unlock the mystery of what happened to Nola.

For Marcus Goldman, a one-time bestselling novelist struck with the dreaded curse of second-book-writer's-block, a story may have just found him if he has the courage to tell it. It is 2008 and Nola's body has been unearthed, having been buried on a Somerset property not far from the place she was last seen alive. The place belongs to another famous American man of letters, Harry Quebert, who is coincidentally Goldman's mentor and the older man with whom Nola fell in love during the summer of 1975. When it comes to light that Quebert's seminal novel, The Origin of Evil, was really a narrative of the affair between him and Nola, the world of the literati condemns him even more harshly than the possible death penalty he faces. Goldman is convinced that there is so much more to the affair than meets the eye. Combine this with the fact that his publisher has sniffed out the next literary blockbuster, and the young writer finds himself swept up in the volatilities of small town secrets, the jealousies of unrequited love, the ignorant violence of youth, contemporary America's obsession with media and celebrity, the delicate fragilities of the web of lies that was spun long before that fateful day in 1975, and the basis for his book.

This novel is a puzzle if there ever was one, and one that seems at times will never fit together in a way that reveals a complete picture. The remarkable feat is in the getting there. Alternating points of view, time periods, plot lines and even writing styles maintains a kind of frenetic and compulsive energy from the hand of the author to the mind of the reader. Ultimately, yes, you want to know what happened to Nola, but along the way you also discover a fascination with what is required in the writing of a good book. Every chapter opens in conversation between Harry and Marcus. "Never let fear or fatigue stop you. On the contrary: You should use them to help you keep going." The teacher imparts a bit of wisdom to his protege: thirty-one rules, to be exact. And just like Marcus Goldman, the reader is left wondering if we are being taught how to write or how to live.

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