I’m not sure if it was the cover (the old cover) of this book, or the title, the fact that wherever I went (Spain, the UK, France) I saw the same book in airports and bookshops, or a combination of all that together with the blurb of the book but I had been curious about this novel for a long time and, eventually, I got around to reading it.
The book and its author has received many accolades and awards, and it is one of those books that manages to combine a gripping story (a mystery that keeps wrongfooting investigators and readers alike) with an interesting narrator and a clever way of telling the story that becomes a part of the action and almost a character in its own right.
The book is divided into Three Parts (Part One: Writer’s Disease, Part Two: Writer’s Cure, Part Three: Writer’s Paradise), a Prologue, and Epilogue, a first scene and acknowledgements at the end. In brief, this novel is the story of the writing of a book, the book we have in our hands (we assume) by Marcus Goldman, also known as Marcus the Magnificent (you’ll have to read the book to know more about that, but let’s say that from a very young age, Marcus had been a man with a sense of his own destiny and had realised that there are ways of gaining fame and attracting everybody’s attention that are not all to do with hard work or talent). In part one, after an intriguing initial scene, we meet Marcus –who became famous after publishing his first book– suffering from writer’s block. Almost two years have passed since the publication of his novel (this is 2008), and he is desperate as his publisher has given him a deadline. To try and get out of the situation he goes to visit his writing teacher, Harry Quebert, whom he met at Burrows University, that he attended between 1998 and 2002. He lives in Somerset, Maine, and is happy to see him. While he is there, Marcus makes a discovery about Harry’s life, and as the novel progresses, we learn that there are many more secrets and mysteries hidden behind the letters and pictures he finds. A fifteen-year-old girl, Nola Kellerman, disappeared in 1975 and when her body is discovered in Harry’s property, all hell breaks loose.
The novel, although seemingly divided into the period before the writing of the novel, the actual writing of it, and its publication, keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time, sometimes through the narration of one of the characters (we go back to 1975, there are fragments where we learn more about Marcus’s relationship with Harry during university and in the in-between years, and we also travel to 1985 and to 1969), sometimes through letters and documents, sometimes we get to listen to recordings of interviews, or we get summaries of reports. There are also other written documents referred to throughout the book, the most important, The Origin of Evil, the novel that turned Harry into a famous writer, which everybody refers to as a masterpiece, and that he happened to write in Somerset, in 1975. Marcus narrates the story in first-person, but the fragments that are either written by others, or part of his novel, are written in the third person. And there are false starts (as Marcus and later Gahalowood, a cranky but likeable sergeant, uncover new information, the notes and the book gets reframed and rewritten), draft versions, false endings, plenty of misunderstandings and intentional misdirection as well. We get different versions of events, but we also get alternative versions of characters, particularly of Nola, who at times appears as a Lolita, a seductress who could manipulate all adults around her, while at others she is an innocent victim of family and lusty men, or a muse intent on inspiriting a masterpiece, or perhaps just a young scared girl trying to find happiness. Nothing is what it seems to be, when we consider both the plot and the characters, and even the basic things we think we know for a fact might require reconsideration.
It is perhaps not evident at the beginning, but each chapter starts with writing advice, that later we understand consists of thirty-one points Harry offers Marcus, starting from number thirty-one and going up the list. As a writer, I feel that most of the points are very insightful, and although most are not terribly personal, some, that we see given in context later on, help us get a sense of who the characters are, and we come to realise that all the advice is pertinent to the story as well. The book follows its own advice, and it piles layer after layer of story and meaning (like Russian dolls), increasing and releasing the tension as explanation after explanation is given and eventually rejected, and as our expectations and trashed time and again.
The characters are well drawn and even some of the seemingly minor characters end up amazing us when we get to know them better (and believe me, we do). There are surprises, as I said, there is humour (mostly provided by the publisher and by Marcus’s mother, perhaps both these characters are less well drawn and caricature-like, but they are not part of Somerset and the story but instead interfere and distract the writer from his task), there are are many touching moments and those are not limited to the main protagonists either (even the least likeable characters get their spot in the limelight). Despite the repetitions and the jumps in time, the book is not difficult to follow, although it is not easy to keep all the clues in mind and guessing who did what is not simple. Of course, that is the beauty of complex mysteries. I have not read the original version, but I cannot fault the translation into English, and I kept highlighting sentences and paragraphs, some to do with writing, but some with the story.
At times readers will be almost shouting, aligning themselves with the editor, demanding that the book gets finished and there is an end to the story, but the author keeps going, pushing the sense of frustration and the patience of the reader, looping the loop once more. It’s a tour-de-force. As Harry says: Books are like life, Marcus. They never really end. Having said all that, I enjoyed the ending, even if at some points it felt as if I was watching one of those horror movies with monsters in them, where you think they are dead, but no, they keep coming. Here, the different explanations, suspects, and red herrings keep coming as well, but I loved the actual ending (even if some of the details and the explanations stretched a bit the suspension of disbelief, but I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers).
I recommend this novel to lovers of mysteries looking for a long and involving read that requires your full attention and is fairly demanding, especially if you don’t mind complex narratives and jumps backward and forward in time. I also recommend it to writers who love novels about writers, for the plot, for the format, and for the advice (most of which will make you nod and smile). This book made me think about many other stories: Lolita, Beauty and the Beast, Cyrano de Bergerac… Although the book is not overtly sexually graphic, here goes a word of warning as it does discuss a relationship between an adult male and a young girl, and there are instances of violence and brutal assaults that could be upsetting. The book depicts a world where white men occupy the main active (and alive) roles (Marcus is Jewish and that plays a major part in the jokes about his mother’s behaviour) and in no way challenges gender or diversity prejudices either, but some of the characters offer insightful comments and have positive attitudes.
I thought I would leave you with a couple of quotations, especially dedicated to writers and readers:
You know what a publisher is? He’s a failed writer whose father was rich enough that he’s able to appropriate other people’s talents.
A good book, Marcus, is judged not by its last words but by the cumulative effect of all the words that have preceded them. About half a second after finishing your book, after reading the very last word, the reader should be overwhelmed by a particular feeling. For a moment he should think only of what he has just read; he should look at the cover and smile a little sadly because he is already missing all the characters. A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished.