Book No 15 (2016) : The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

Harry QuebertLike most people, before I learned to drive I had to use public transport – trains and buses. My bus-riding days were before the advent of digital signage and the Internet, so if your bus didn’t turn up at the allotted time, you just had to wait. Sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for an hour. This always posed a dilemma: did you stand there for an unspecified length of time, investing in waiting and hoping for something exciting to come along. Or did you cut your losses and start walking, hoping that you would get home before the bus passed you en route? Reading Joel Dicker’s novel reminded me of that predicament.

Marcus Goldman is a successful author, having been mentored by his College tutor and erstwhile friend, Harry Quebert. Harry is himself the writer of a best-selling novel, entitled ‘The Origin of Evil‘. The title is somewhat mysterious, as the book is a love story, recounting the passion of a thirty-four year old man for a fifteen-year old girl. When Marcus begins to experience writer’s block while trying to craft his second novel, he invites himself to Harry Quebert’s home in Somerset, New Hampshire. A few days after Marcus’ departure from Somerset, a sensational story hits the news; the body of 15 year-old Nola Kellargan has been unearthed from Harry’s garden, 33 years after she disappeared. Harry is arrested and charged, but Marcus is convinced of his friend’s innocence. He returns to New Hampshire where he takes on the investigation of the case, to clear Harry Quebert’s name.

This book is long at 614 paperback pages, so not one you can dash off in a few hours. And it is soooooo slow. The text was originally written in French (Dicker is Swiss) and maybe that accounts for the simplistic, wooden dialogue which seems to ascribe Harry with the same vocabulary as that of his teenage muse. The relationship between Harry and Nola stretches belief to breaking point and there are also so many plot holes you could strain vegetables through the pages of this book. It sort of comes together in last ten pages or so, as the author reveals the perpetrators of Nola’s murder.

I got about a third of the way through this novel and was tired of waiting for something to appear, something which would transport me somewhere more interesting. But the more time I invested in reading it, the more reluctant I was to give up on that investment. Spurred on by Simon Mayo’s endorsement (he called it “the book of the year”), I carried on. It was the wrong decision. Take my advice; if you are waiting at the Harry Quebert bus stop, start walking. Get out of there as soon as you can. It just isn’t worth the wait.

Book No 14 (2016) : Early One Morning

early one morningHave you ever bitten into a jam doughnut, only to discover that it has custard in the middle? Not that there is anything wrong with custard doughnuts, it just wasn’t what you were expecting. That is what reading Virgina Baily’s novel ‘Early One Morning‘ was like. Once I got into it, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is 1943 and Chiara is making her way through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, when she witnesses Jewish families being herded onto trucks by soldiers. When one of the persecuted mothers catches her eye, silently pleading for help, Chiara acts on impulse and pulls the woman’s young son to safety. It  is a brave and dangerous act, as she knows nothing about the child, he has no papers or identification, only that his name is Daniele Levi.

From this dramatic beginning, I was expecting a story of how Chiara’s  compassion would be rewarded in spades, as she and Daniele become increasingly devoted to one another. Her adoption of the boy would be the ultimate act of selflessness, allowing him to grow into a sage and loving boy, grounded by Chiara’s devotion. Only that is not how the tale develops at all. Instead, Daniele is sullen and resentful, is never accepted by Chiara’s own sister and grows into a dysfunctional, damaged young man who is finally banished in order to save his mother’s sanity. When Chiara discovers that Daniele had fathered a child by a young Welsh woman, the wounds of the past are re-opened.

This novel is beautifully crafted and surprising. Chiara is strong yet so fallible, as she struggles to give up smoking and cannot bear to part with the possessions which clutter her small apartment. I have never visited Rome, but the descriptions of the city, through the eyes of Baily’s characters, made the place come alive in my imagination. Daniele is also depicted third-hand; imagined and romanticised by his daughter, despised by Chiara’s sister and protected by the priest, his form is enigmatic and uncertain. There is a fine cast of supporting characters as well, including Chiara’s long-suffering maid, Assunta, and her father’s lover, Simone.

If you like to have your expectations challenged and enjoy stirring descriptive writing, then this is a book you will certainly enjoy. Just don’t expect it to be sugar-coated. Unlike doughnuts.

Book No 13 (2016) : The Girl in the Red Coat

girl in the red coatThe Girl in the Red Coat‘ is Carmel. She disappears from a festival she has been enjoying with her mother, Beth. The reader learns what happens to the young child and whilst her abduction doesn’t appear to be motivated by physical or sexual abuse, what happens to her is certainly creepy.

The novel is narrated alternately by Carmel (who is given a new name by her captor) and her mother. This is not a murder story and is not gruesome, so don’t be put off reading it just because that kind of fiction doesn’t appeal to you. Carmel is chosen because of her spiritual energy and healing powers, so a willingness to believe in those abilities might enhance your enjoyment of the book.

Even before the disappearance of of Madeleine McCann, reports of missing children fuel the fires of every parent’s deepest fear. To bury a child is all of our nightmares, but for a son or daughter to disappear, and never know their fate, adds a whole new level of unimaginable grief. I don’t know how the likes of the McCanns, Ben Needham’s mother or the families of the Chibok girls get through each day. This is why I felt Beth’s character lacked definition; I was unconvinced by the descriptions of her, which didn’t seem to me to convey the gut-wrenching agony that must pervade every waking, sleeping moment of not knowing what has happened to your child. The terrors your mind could conjure about the fate of your child would surely drive you insane?

I was also irritated by the lack of filling in the ‘back story’ about Pa and another character, Mercy. Having read some of the reviews on Amazon, this was a frustration which other readers shared; just too many unanswered questions.

On balance, I am not sure I can recommend this book. Although it held the promise of being a riveting read, and despite the fact that I did finish it in order to find out whether Beth and Carmel would be reunited, I generally found it to be lacking in pace and suspense.