When I initially picked up this book a while back in a charity shop, I was under the impression from the blurb and the testimonials on the cover that it would be a more-or-less straightforward crime thriller. It was only after rediscovering the fabulous HHhH that I decided to start reading it, because I noticed that they were both translated by Sam Taylor (whose future translations I’m definitely going to look out for, because he sure knows how to pick them!). I certainly wasn’t disappointed: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is indeed a thrilling page-turner that centres around a labyrinthine murder investigation, but what I really loved was the skew of metafiction that gives it an extra layer of complexity and interest.
The narrator is Marcus Goldman, an author struggling to write his second book after the huge success of his first. He goes to New Hampshire to visit his old friend and mentor Harry Quebert, who is arrested soon afterwards when the remains of a young teenage girl are discovered buried in his garden, 33 years after her disappearance. When it is revealed that a manuscript of Quebert’s most famous novel was found with the body, it seems like an open-and-shut case, but Goldman believes that his friend is innocent. Abandoning all efforts to produce any work for his publisher and risking financial ruin as well as his reputation, he decides to find out the truth.
The main narrative takes place in 2008, rooted by the backdrop of Obama’s presidential election campaign, and it is interspersed with recounts of past events, largely from 1975 – the year the murdered girl went missing. The multiple timelines are seamlessly linked by the flow of the investigation and it never feels like you are being pulled away from the narrative, which is something I often have problems with when it comes to plots split between two or more time periods.
“When you get to the end of the book, Marcus, give your reader a last-minute twist.”
“Because you have to keep them on tenterhooks until the end. It’s like when you’re playing cards: You have to hold a few trump cards for the final part of the game.”
There’s so much I loved about the construction of this book, but I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away any twists and turns (of which there are a fair few that come thick and fast throughout the book, so I don’t feel bad about saying “Ooo there’s a great twist”, the knowledge of which can itself ruin a book!). It is meticulously crafted, and the characters are extremely vivid – you cannot help but empathise so strongly with them that when certain things are revealed, the carpet is ripped out from under your feet and it feels almost like a personal betrayal. This recurring theme of deception runs like a thread through the book. Every character is projecting some form of falsehood, some small –like the aspiring writer from New York who does nothing to dispel the assumption that he is famous and wealthy–, others life-changing in their significance. Suffice to say that, like all good books set in seemingly quaint little towns, dark secrets lie just beneath the surface of the community.
Through the metafictional element, the deception also extends in some ways to the book itself. I will attempt to explain, but be warned: this is a bit mind-boggling and I’m not very adept at elegantly untangling such things. First things first, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is (ignoring the real world for a moment) a book written by the narrator Marcus Goldman that does what it says on the tin: it’s the ‘truth’ about Goldman’s previous book The Harry Quebert Affair. We read the apparently unconstructed version of events, almost like a diary of Goldman’s investigation that he then writes up for the publication of The Harry Quebert Affair (of which we only ever see small excerpts). We essentially see the world through Goldman’s eyes while he deals with events as they happen, including seeing ‘behind the scenes’ of the writing and publishing processes. The narrative then extends beyond the creation of the first book to the aftermath of its publication and subsequent events surrounding the murder investigation.
But then you step back and realise the whole damn thing is written in the real world by Joël Dicker – and that’s really what blows my mind when it comes to metafictional stuff: that one person has created these nested worlds with such skill and precision that they feel incredibly real. And the ‘deception’ of the author is never maliciously aimed at the reader, but instead they are poking fun at themselves by dragging the very act of writing into the limelight – albeit via the creation of fiction, which inevitably then contains some tongue-in-cheek recognition of that fact. It’s like some sort of infinite mirror loop and it thrills me to the core while confusing me immensely.
So although the plot centres around a criminal investigation, that is really just a vehicle through which to comment on the writing of fiction. It’s not just Goldman’s books that feature: the manuscript found with the murder victim’s body, The Origin of Evil, is a major plot element too, and we see a spectrum of questions raised about the process of creativity and the motivations for writing – the difference between writing because you have something to say and writing for commercial purposes or financial gain. To reinforce this central theme, each chapter opens with a fragment of dialogue in which Quebert gives writing advice to Goldman, and the three parts into which the book is split are called ‘Writers’ Disease’, ‘Writers’ Cure’ and ‘Writers’ Paradise’, giving the contents of those sections additional depth in light of these titles.
In short: you should read this book, because it’s brilliant. Don’t be put off by its length: it may have over 600 pages, but believe me, every one of them is worth it.