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The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

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I purchased this novel with high hopes - the blurb sounded just my thing: a story about an author accused of murder, and a young writer and protégé who must assist his mentor in solving the crime through writing a novel of his own. A metafictional premise, in other words, with a picture from Edward Hopper on the front cover. I should have been more weary of the heavy bold title which obscures the Hopper painting; there is something emblematic in this in terms of the promise of the book.

In reviewing a highly successful novel written by a young European writer one is very conscious of not sounding like a bitter-and-twisted would-be-but-can't-be bestseller author oneself, jealous of the twists and turns of another's life. Keeping this in mind, I will do my best to be fair on the novel and author and begin with what works well (perhaps this is where the grab quotes normally come from). The novel has been compared to Stief Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, it has…

Alfred de Musset - Confession of a Child of the Century

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This novel was a gift, and not in the sense of unexpected pleasure or revelation. It was a birthday present from someone very close to me, and someone quite French. As such, I read it - at first with some interest - and then out of a sort of mix of duty and despair at ending up with another unfinished novel on my bookshelf.

The opening is interesting - the context of wars and revolutionary ideals betrayed, an Emperor come and gone, and the sense of modernity and change (published in 1836) and an awareness of the Romantic movement in the arts gives it a contemporaneous feel. But soon it becomes what is its central theme - a story of the search for love of one betrayed by his mistress. It is like Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821) only less visionary, in every sense.

Perhaps it is a French thing to enjoy stories of aristocratic debauchery, where hints of sexual feats must serve over detailed descriptions in the sense of good taste, but I found it all rather self-aggrandising, none t…

Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole

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Karinthy's Metropole was given to me in France over Christmas by my brother-in-law; it appears to have been published in French in 1999 by Editions DENOEL and in English in 2008 by Telegram (UK). is a Kafka-like novel. I had never heard of the novel or the author, but now understand that he was from Hungary, and according to the back cover, was a novelist, playwright, journalist and water polo champion. Busy people, these Hungarians!

As others have noted, it is a Kafkaesque tale, built on a simple premise (like The Trial, where Joseph K is under arrest but doesn't know why). In this case, the protagonist Budai is on a trip to Helsinki to attend a linguists' conference but someone ends up on the wrong plane, and subsequently, in an unknown, multicultural city, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere (he eventually establishes, from the stars) but really - God-knows-where. Budai's incomprehension at his fate bears some similarity to Joseph K; it's a matter of a Europe…

The Dancer Upstairs - Nicholas Shakespeare

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I have read three Nicholas Shakespeare novels in recent years, and have found each one to be intriguing - novels with plots, which I like, novels about troubled men and mysterious women. Call me old fashioned, but I like that combination as well.

I read the novels all out of order in terms of when they were published, not that this probably matters very much. Inheritance (2011) appealed to me with the premise of the failed writer who inherits millions by chance and has all the distrust to deal with that comes with that. There's an Australian mining story behind the money and a search for the truth in events of the past. I really enjoyed Snowleg (2004) and its evocation of East Germany before the wall came down; two cities I know well enough feature in the story - Leipzig in the East, and Hamburg in the West. The protagonist, Peter, falls in love in Leipzig but the authorities get in the way and he leaves with profound regrets, guilt and uncertainty about his actions which plagues …

The Train to Paris

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Over the weekend, I read Sebastian Hampson's debut novel 'The Train to Paris'. The premise of the novel was appealing: a young traveller (Lawrence) meets a French woman (Elodie) at a train station and his plans to get back to Paris are delayed; an adventure unfolds. The front cover has a wintry, black and white image, a scene from the end of the novel, one assumes after reading. It was only when I got home that I read about the author, a New Zealander born in 1992; at this point the aging author in me became both jealous and suspicious - a combination of the worst traits of Lawrence and Elodie, perhaps. I read the first few pages and began to scoff at the unlikely meeting and the stereotypes of the French. I kept reading, however, and found the novel engaging on a number of levels. First, the dialogue and relationship between the two characters and the shady third wheel, an American pornographer named Ed, was engaging and true to itself. The settings were well imagined, on…

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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I have just finished reading Richard Flanagan's latest novel, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' and thought I would write a few lines about it, while it's fresh on my mind. What follows is not so much a review as a few thoughts and observations.

Flanagan knows how to write about suffering, and sometimes this is not easy to read. For example, in this novel, the Australian POWs (Prisoners of War) are deep in the Siam jungle, building an impossible railway as part of the Japanese war effort. In one scene, a character named 'Darky Gardiner' (on account of his Aboriginal heritage, we discover late in the novel) is beaten relentlessly and without reason, already a broken man, dragged from the hospital to appease some loss of face between the commandant and a visiting official. The commander, Nakamura, has left the scene but comes back, surprised that the beating continues in the dark (he hasn't ordered it to stop), '[Darky] ... no longer looked like a man,…