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.
I have read and reviewed two of Gisela Hausmann’s books from her little books collection before and enjoyed enormously her no-nonsense attitude and the easy-to-use format. These are books that, as the author explains, should take a short time to read (she aims for less than 90 minutes, and I don’t think I’ve gone over 30 minutes for any of them), and the advice offered should be easy to implement, so that anybody who’ve just read one of them could apply what they’ve learned, rather than having to go through a lengthy process, take a course, or make a huge investment. (With regards to this last issue, that does not mean there is no cost involved at all, as in this book she emphasises the importance of finding an editor and states that is much more useful investing your hard-earned cash on that than spending money on things like tools to automatize marketing or on exchanging reviews with other authors).
This book will be appreciated by authors and reviewers alike. I had to smile at her examples of some of the e-mails she has received asking for book reviews. As a book reviewer, I’ve had similar experiences (authors sending an unsolicited copy of the book, without even bothering to find your name, and stating they read your blog, although you’ve never seen them there and from the content of the letter is evident they haven’t) and I can’t but agree with her recommendations to authors. (Although I am an author, other than in my own books and the blog, I rarely approach reviewers directly, but I’ll try and make sure I remember her advice in the future). I really liked her suggestion that we should try to introduce our book as if we were preparing the book for a date, making sure to try and choose the right partner and find the points of connection between our book and the possible date (reviewer). As she puts it:
A creative, exciting, funny, and unique “dating profile” will attract “matching” readers to start a relationship made in “book heaven.”
The author covers etiquette as pertains to various social media as well (Facebook and Twitter) and the etiquette of blogging. Her advice might not suit everybody and I suspect some of her tips might be more or less useful depending on the readership and genre of the author, but I have personally concluded that we must remain true to ourselves, and not just adopt passing fashions because they seem to work for somebody else, and I am with her on the importance of adhering to proper etiquette. (It might seem unnecessary to some people, but I can’t imagine many people will take offence to being treated politely).
This is another solid offering in a series of books for authors that has become one of my favourites, and I recommend it to authors with little time to waste (all of them, I guess) who prefer realistic advice to pie-in-the-sky promises, and who don’t mind some straight-talking (or writing). If you check the sample of the book and like what you read, it is worth following the author as she runs regular promotions and offers of her back catalogue.
Source: LitReactor (Spoiler Alert for True Detective: Season Two)
I suggest every author who sees this read the entire article.
A good book is one that makes us think--about ourselves, and about our world. Even in genre works, like sci fi, fantasy, and horror, the author still explores ideas about what it means to be human: love, hatred, trust, belief, war, disease--plus uncountable others. Even if an author doesn't intend to send a message in their work, the way that they present their characters and their setting will include certain assumptions and judgments about life.
There is no way to escape these themes, any more than writers can escape characters, plots, or words, so it is important for us to consider how we want to use them--and how they are used in authors we read. There are a number of ways to present and explore these themes in books, some more effective than others. So, in order from least to best, here are the different methods authors use to present ideas in their works:
Exploitative works present ideas in a way that thrills and titillates the audience, but which never asks difficult questions and does little or nothing to challenge societal prejudices. Such works use sex, violence, racism, religion, politics, and other hot-button issues to draw in their audience, exploiting the fact that, when we see such taboos being played out, it provokes strong emotional reactions from us.
The average Women in Prison Movie, for example, uses its setting to depict violence, nudity, lesbianism, and dominance, but it doesn't actually explore what these ideas mean. It doesn't try to define what 'justice' actually means, or look at the nature of personal freedom versus social safety. These are themes that are going to be present in any movie about incarceration, but in a low-quality exploitation film, such themes will never be explored. Of course, this doesn't mean that all movies labeled with the 'exploitation' genre must be this thoughtless--some use these techniques to get butts in seats, and can be remarkable subversive.
These works present interesting themes to us in a realistic way, but never actually force us to confront them or think about them deeply. This was the criticism Roger Ebert laid against Fight Club: that the first half opens up a number of interesting questions, but the last half fails to sink its teeth into them, letting them drop away into the background. However, there are many exploitative authors who try to use this as a defense of their works--that they're only presenting the world 'as it really is'.
For example, recent authors of 'gritty' epic fantasy tend to present rape as a constant threat to women, often to the point that no female character in any of their books will fail to be threatened seriously with rape, at one point or another. They claim they are only representing 'the dark nature of war', but they never present a single male character being threatened with rape by his enemies, despite this being far from uncommon in the real world. As such, we can see that they are only presenting one side of rape, the side which our current culture finds titillating and exciting, meaning that they are writing pure exploitation, not realism.
Part of the problem with this strategy is that it acts as if the author and the work are somehow separate, allowing the author to deny responsibility for what they have written. All works of writing are artificial, because everything in a story is there only because the author chose to put it there deliberately, or because they unconsciously included it. Sitting back and saying 'no, my story is realistic, it represents the real world' is a cop-out. The book represents the author's views and mind, whether they intend it to or not, so to me it seems wiser to deliberately take advantage of this artificiality by being aware of it rather than pretending that it doesn't exist. Why choose to write a story about a prison if the theme of freedom doesn't interest you?
This is the most simplistic way for an author to try to deal with themes in their work: to present the theme and then use various methods to try to convince the audience either that it is good, or that it is bad. Often, this means putting the idea into a certain character's mouth, such as having the hero give a long speech about the roles men and women should have in relationships. Since the hero is presented as good, and sympathetic, and competent, we are supposed to trust this speech and take the lesson to heart. Conversely, you can have the villain talk all about why Communism is the best, and since he happens to kill babies, we're supposed to conclude that Communism is evil. Sometimes, it's set up as a conversation, where the character the author wants to be right has all the proper answers, and the wrong character gets completely torn down.
Less skilled authors don't even bother to put the idea into the mouths of their characters, they just state it outright in the narration--either going off on some long tangent about their personal opinions, or perhaps slipping them in, here and there. Take for example a racist author who always uses unflattering descriptions for non-White characters, or a sexist author who describe all the good women as physically beautiful, and all the bad ones as ugly and deformed.
Though it's good that at least these authors are trying to explore ideas in their works, in the end this method is no more than propaganda, an attempt by the author to tell you what you should or shouldn't believe. It's what I've come to call 'literature of answers'--the author has some particular opinion they present as gospel truth--and any time someone tells you they have the answers, they're trying to sell you something.
This is the highest form of thematic exploration to which an author can aspire. Instead of simply telling the reader what to think, or presenting their own opinions in a good light and the opposite side in a bad light, the author attempts to look at an idea from several different sides, bringing up questions about how we think of that idea, of the assumptions and prejudices that go along with it, and ultimately, forcing the reader to reconsider their own position on the matter. It makes us look at the world in a new way, so that we have to confront what we thought we knew and admit that (as ever) we have more work to do. So, if the author were exploring the theme of incarceration and justice, they would have to show us not just the prisoner's side of the argument, but also the jailor's, and the judge's, and the average citizens.
Better yet, they can show us how various individual prisoners and officers see it, that some prisoners are going to disagree with others about what it means, and some prisoners and officers are going to be on the same page. What's important is that each individual view that we see comes off as valid and believable for that character, that we aren't getting weak straw men on one side and real arguments on the other. The term 'Negative Capability' was originally defined by Keats, referring to how great writers like Shakespeare wrote about ideas--that all the characters on both side of the argument seem to be strong and well-written, and as such, that it's difficult or impossible to decide which side the author personally prefers.
Indeed, a thoughtful and honest author will often admit that they don't have the answers, and that the best we can do is to present various sides of the issue, as we understand them, and to let our readers make up their own minds. This is what I've come to call 'literature of questions', where instead of giving us simple answers, the author forces the reader to consider difficult and complex questions about the nature of life and being.
What's curious is that often, when an author's message aligns with modern assumptions and prejudices, it becomes less clear whether they're writing propagandist, one-sided views. For instance, these days racists tend to be presented as evil villain characters, and you rarely get a racist character whose beliefs are presented as valid from their own point-of-view--indeed, writers who present a sympathetic racist are likely to be accused of defending racism instead of presenting various sides of the issue. Of course, the problem with this is that it supports the notion that racism is a simplistic, either/or proposition, to the point that many people think being nice means you can't be a racist--when of course, prejudice is much more subtle and insidious than that, and deserves more thorough and thoughtful treatment.
There are also some cases where an author might be providing a response to a common cultural theme that is widely taken for granted, and since it is already so familiar to readers, they don't have to present both sides--that they only need to present the revolutionary, contradictory side.
Kyosai - Hell Courtesan
As authors, it's important for us to consider what themes we want to explore in our books--we don't have the space to explore all of them, so as always, it becomes a case of choosing what to leave in, and what to deliberately keep out. Certainly, it's not a problem to touch upon certain ideas, here and there, or to look at one more deeply in a certain chapter and not return to it. As readers, we must likewise try to ferret out what each author thought was important, and then try to decide what we think of the ideas they presented, and how they presented them. Were they effective? Did they bring up ideas only to exploit them, or did they present them realistically? Do they work to explore these themes, or merely depict them? Did they fill their works with a lot of drawn-out explanations and exposition, or did their themes emerge naturally from their characters and stories?
One of the most important things that you can do as an author is to choose characters, scenes, and settings that match the ideas you like to explore. If you want to explore the idea of justice, then pick characters and situations which will highlight various aspects of that idea. Give yourself every opportunity to present your themes in different ways, and from different points of view, so you can provide your reader with a more complete exploration of your ideas. For every author, there will be certain ideas that appeal to them, and to which they will return again and again over decades in various stories and books. There may also be ideas that interest you only for a while.
Getting to know what these ideas are, and why they are important to you is a vital part of finding your own authorial voice. That doesn't mean you have to be certain about them--quite the opposite: they should be ideas which puzzle you, which fill you with wonder, so that you will never tire of picking them up and looking at them again, trying to find a new angle or view that you can represent in your writing.