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.

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Book No 7 (2016) : A Place Called Winter

place called winterEvery now and then I read a book which, for weeks afterwards, whenever anyone asks me ‘what shall I read next?’, I press a copy into their hands. So far in 2016, Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’ has been that book.

Harry Cane is a young man of seemingly limited ambition who is able to live comfortably with his young wife and child without the need to bother himself with a career. His marriage is not without love, but is without passion. Following a chance encounter with an attractive voice coach, with whom he embarks upon an illicit sexual affair, Harry discovers the ardour missing from his matrimony. When the relationship is discovered and Harry faces public disgrace, he decides upon emigration from England to Canada. There is the promise of anonymity, but also land and the chance to forge a new beginning.

The opening chapter of the book is difficult to figure out, as it seems as if Harry is now in some kind of hospital or institution, but his supposed crime is not entirely clear. By the end of the novel, the author has cleverly brought the narrative full circle and the explanations are unexpected.

Gale explores many themes in ‘A Place Called Winter‘, including sexuality, gender, isolation, forgiveness and acceptance, all handled with a quietly confident style, whose simple prose belies the strength of the plot and its main players. The historical perspective and sense of place are highly evocative, capturing both the social and physical landscapes of England and the Canadian prairies in the early 1800s.

The success of the novel lies in the characterisation of Harry Cane and his capacity for love in its many guises; parental, platonic, sexual and romantic. He is also an essentially good man, in the truest sense of the word. Despite Harry’s experiences he retains an almost childlike nature, trusting and guileless. I was with him all the way.

 

Book No 11 (2014) : The Thirteenth Tale

13th taleOnce I’d got used to the idea that this book was actually not about the Amish (I got that impression from the two little girls in white cotton petticoats on the front cover!), I settled down to enjoy it.

Margaret Lea is a solitary character, spending her time helping in her father’s bookshop, where she lives above the shop. Having published a short biographical essay, she is approached by a celebrated contemporary author, Vida Winter. Ms Winter asks Margaret to chronicle the truth about her life, telling the story of her childhood and upbringing at Angelfield, the family home. As you would expect from such a tale, Vida is reclusive, eccentric and ready to reveal her secrets.

The author of ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ has been accused of being pretentious, as the book has a Gothic feel together with references to several classics, most notably ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Rebecca’. That was not my impression. It’s an interesting take on the rambling house/skeletons in the cupboard/family saga and the plot had enough twists to keep me interested throughout.  The book was adapted as a TV movie, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Vida Winter – perfect choice.

I rather wished I was Margaret – bookshop inhabitant, wanderer of old houses, budding biographer!

Book No 7 (2014) : The Impressionist

impressionistSweeping Indian novels are a passion of mine – I cut my teeth on ‘The Far Pavilions’ when I was about 14 and swore for years afterwards that I would name my son ‘Ashton’ after the lead character! Well, that didn’t happen, but I have enjoyed many Indian sagas since then.
The Impressionist’ by Hari Kunzru, is the story of Pran Nath, born as the result of a fleeting union between an English officer and an Indian beauty. Circumstances see him ousted from his privileged home and catapulted into a series of lives from a male prostitute to a place at Oxford. He encounters characters from all walks of life, most of whom appear to be indifferent to him, and with whom he rarely forms any mutually meaningful attachments. Pran/Rukshana/WhiteBoy/Pretty Bobby and Jonathan Bridgeman (Pran’s various personae) are all ‘dodgy’ characters, drawn to the seedier side of life, quick to exploit opportunities. But Pran is essentially a blank canvas, a chameleon soaking up the hues of his surroundings, using the pale colour of his skin to his advantage. His quest to find his place in the world is at times violent, amusing and thrilling.
It’s not a quick read and the pace seems to slow, leaving the conclusion somehow unfulfilling. At times I was enthralled by the book, but towards the end found my concentration waning. Despite it having been critically acclaimed, ‘The Impressionist’ is not a novel that I particularly enjoyed.

Book No 5 (2014) : Painter of Silence

painter of silenceThis novel was described so eloquently by a friend at our last village Book Group meeting, that I swiped it out of her hands there and then! Written by Georgina Harding, ‘Painter of Silence’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012 – although it did lose out to Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’.

Augustus and Safta are raised together in Romania. He is the son of the cook, she is the daughter of the house at Poiana. They share an unbreakable bond, made all the more poignant by the fact that whilst Augustus is a talented artist, he is profoundly deaf and never acquires language. He watches quietly, observes the behaviour and senses the mood of others, although the world is frequently a bewildering place for him. Safta and Augustus are separated by the outbreak of WW2 and the invasion of the Russian armies, but they are reunited when Augustus seeks her out at the hospital where she has enlisted as a nurse. Through the medium of his drawings and mini figurines, Augustus draws upon his memories to portray to Safta the story of his life and the fate of her pre-War lover. The ending is both surprising and satisfying.

It’s a beautifully atmospheric book, underlining the importance of place and suffused throughout with Safta’s gentle care for Augustus. I recommend it.

Book No 2 (2014) : Appletree Yard

AppTreeYardThis was the book I read in one sitting. Louise Doughty has written a page-turning thriller, charting the descent of a respectable woman into a world which contrasts sharply with her hitherto conservative life.

The book begins and concludes with Yvonne’s court trial for a crime which is revealed towards the end of the book. Trying to figure out what she has done, is a puzzle for the reader.

It’s certainly compelling, but I have an issue with the central premise of the book. Which is that Yvonne, the central character, embarks upon a passionate affair with a man she meets whilst working in London. Well, it’s not really an affair – even Yvonne describes it as ‘Sex. And coffee’. She doesn’t know the chap’s name, or what he does for a living, or where he lives.

Maybe I have had a sheltered life but I am the same age (more or less) as Yvonne and life can be a little pedestrian sometimes. Nevertheless, I am not going to let some strange bloke s**g me in an underground crypt, just because he smiled nicely at me over a latte! Throughout the whole book, my rational brain was screaming ‘but a real person wouldn’t do that’! Or even ‘do that’.

If you can suspend your belief and relish descriptions of knee-tremblers in the back streets of our capital, it’s a great read!