I embarked upon my own personal summer reading program a couple of weeks ago (see June 23rd post, What’s on my Nightstand), starting with the “international bestseller,” The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. The New York Times Book Review described this novel as “unimpeachably terrific,” it has been a bestseller in several European countries and is now available in English. How could it miss?
The author presents an appealing plot: young writer, Marcus Goldman, is outraged when his mentor, Harry Quebert, is arrested for the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, Nola Kellerman, whose body is found buried in Quebert’s garden. The murder happened in 1975, when Quebert wrote his literary masterpiece in a small seaside town in New Hampshire where most of the action takes place. Quebert’s novel is a love story with a strange title, The Origin of Evil, and remains the best thing Quebert has ever written, though he has gone on to have a long career as an author and professor of writing.
The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair jumps around in time, from the present day – where the young writer, Marcus Goldman, spends his time investigating the circumstances surrounding Nola Kellerman’s death to 1975, when the girl disappeared without a trace. It is notable that Goldman is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block and, as it turns out, writing a book about his investigation promises to save his career and his publishing contract. But Goldman often gets things wrong, just like the police investigating Nola’s disappearance in 1975 got things wrong, and his interviews with Harry are as dragged out and annoying as the many false suspects, red herrings, wrongly arrested and disjointed plot twists. And here’s where I wondered about the translation. Sometimes the writing seemed melodramatic; often it just fell flat on the page. Here’s an example from page 44:
Roth left and I entered the vast, empty house. I locked the door behind me and went straight to the office, in search of the box I’d found. But it wasn’t there anymore. What could Harry have done with it? I desperately wanted to get hold of it, and I began searching the bookshelves in the office and the living room. Then I decided to inspect each room in the house, in the hope of finding even the smallest clue that might help me understand what had happened here in 1975. Was it in one of these rooms that Nola had been murdered?
The way the author frequently sprinkles in these inane questions: What could Harry have done with it? Or, Was it in one of these rooms that Nola had been murdered? began to drive me crazy. I wondered whether the problem was with the translation, or maybe the novel simply needed a major edit. That said, I did read all 640 pages but think it could have been a much better book at, say, 350 pages. One more extremely annoying aspect was how one of the characters (who’d been disfigured as a young man) had a lisp and the author wrote his dialog in a way that sounded out the speech impediment. Here’s an excruciating example from page 442:
“Pleave, I would like to paint her. Could I, pleave?”
“No, Luther. Not that. Not again . . . “
“Oh, pleave, let me paint her! It’f been fo long!”
“But why her?”
“Becaufe she lookf like Eleanore.”
Aargh! Everytime this character speaks on the page, I cringe.
Another annoyance: Dickert uses every stereotype imaginable in this novel. All writers, even bestselling writers suffer from extreme and disabling writer’s block (both Harry and Marcus in this case), publishers are greedy and dishonest – they don’t care whether a book is truthful, just whether it sells; the police are mostly idiots who can’t solve an investigation even when the evidence is abundant and clear; men fall in love with beautiful women, even when they’re teenagers and crazy (as in straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie); lawyers are at least as greedy and dishonest as publishing companies. Alright, already!
Again, I finished the novel and I’m not sure why – possibly because I’ve always been a good student who completes assignments, certainly not because I wanted to figure out whodunit. In fact, I put the book down after finding out who murdered the young girl and went to sleep. Next day, when I picked it up again, I thought. “Wait, didn’t I read who committed the murder last night? Who was it, again?” Dickert presents so many possible suspects for the murder that when the actual murderers are revealed, it’s anticlimactic.
Apparently book has sold millions of copies in Europe, one Spanish newspaper described it as “The great thriller that everyone has been waiting for since the Millennium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson.” For me, there’s no possible comparison. I wonder if he read the same novel I read. Get it from the library and decide for yourself. Maybe it’s just me or maybe something was simply . . . lost in translation.