Searching for love, death and literature in New Hampshire
‘It’s complicated’ is the phrase which many characters in this stylish, convoluted literary thriller come out with, when questioned about the unravelling of a 33 year old crime.
‘It’s complicated’ could almost serve as a subtitle for Swiss author, Joel Dicker’s book, and most particularly for anyone attempting to say what this novel is about, without revealing spoilers.
In not quite brief, take Somerset, a small community in New Hampshire, where, in 1975 a struggling writer, Harry Quebert, holes up, trying to write his great novel. Quebert is a man in his thirties. He meets and falls passionately in love with Nola Kellergan, the 15 year old daughter of the local pastor. Harry tries to resist the mutually felt attraction. Nola seems older and wiser than her years, and acts as a literary muse to Quebert. However, she is somewhat more than she seems to be. A great and mysterious tragedy ensues, as Nola vanishes, missing believed murdered.
Quebert’s novel becomes a literary sensation and he becomes a literary star on the back of it.
Fast forward into the twenty-first century. Quebert became a professor and mentor in academic New Hampshire, to young wannabe writers. One of them, Marcus Goldman, particularly found Quebert inspired, supported and developed him into an exceptional writer. Goldman in his turn wrote a literary best seller, and also went stellar, in 2006. This book, a book which is about a book of the same title, not to mention 2 more, is one written or written about by Goldman.
In 2008 Marcus is living in New York, deep within terrifying writer’s block, about to be sued by his publisher for failing to deliver the second novel he is tied into by his book deal. In desperation the young literary lion accepts an invitation from his reclusive mentor to return to Somerset, away from the distractions of New York, to walk by the ocean and rediscover the solitude and space to write. Goldman accepts, but pretty quickly the shocking details of the events of 1975 emerge, and a highly complex criminal investigation gets underway, involving Quebert as the major suspect.
Goldman moves from trying to write his book to defending his friend, and becomes an investigator. And part of his investigation is to write a book about this. There are tortuous and clever twists, turns, revelations which appear to solve the mystery but turn out to be flawed, back-tracks, fast- forwards, shifting time scales.
Holding the entire ‘it’s complicated’ together, as virtually every inhabitant of Somerset appears to be implicated in some way in Nola’s disappearance, is Marcus Goldman, his deep friendship and admiration for Quebert. A raft of memorable, quirky small-town residents, virtually every one of them with skeletons which keep falling out of cupboards sustains the reader’s dazzled absorption. No wonder the book has been likened to Lynch’s Twin Peaks, particularly as Nola’s disappearance exerted a great slew and twist on the Somerset community. Investigation shows her to have been not only powerful in her own right, but a projection of all kinds of archetypes. The reader’s understanding of who Nola was gets destroyed and rebuilt, again and again
Although this is certainly a crime/thriller novel – it is also a thriller about writing itself, full of sly reader mind-mangling games and conceits, which are most enjoyable.
Added to the noir, occasionally Gothic carryings on of the small community, where no one is quite what they seem, are larger than life characters from the books as commodities publishing scene, who almost appear as slightly monstrous comic relief turns. Goldman’s, sharp, sharky publisher has his finger on the pulse and knows exactly how to turn free advertising to megabucks
All you have to do is get people interested, one way or another, to create a buzz…..and you can rely on these people to talk about you on social networks. Isn’t that incredible? Facebook users are just people wearing sandwich boards for free
I also particularly enjoyed the very broad brush stroked phone exchanges between Goldman and his highly stylised Jewish mother – with the vocal rhythms and turns of phrase which irresistibly reminded me of that series of ads which Maureen Lipman made for BT:
“Markie, darling, listen: I have to ask you. Are you in love with this Harry? Are you homosexualising with him?”
“No! Not at all!”
I heard her say to my father: “He says no. That means yes.”
This is a deliciously absorbing, dark, comedic game of a book. Originally in French it has been acclaimed and lauded with prizes. Now translated into English by Sam Taylor, the English speaking audience may soon be happily surrendering to Quebert, Goldman and Dicker.
That I couldn’t quite fall unreservedly in love with it is due in part to a feeling, as I neared the end, of one too many twists which happened about a couple of turns before the satisfying final one. And, most importantly, though my intellect was thoroughly engaged, there was, despite the clever and for the most part credible characterisations and sharp observations, some quality of heart which was missing, so that the mind games never quite viscerally, feelingly engaged me. My mind, but not my heart got touched. Ideally, I want both to be squeezed, shaken and engaged.
I received this as an ARC from the publishers, in digital format