Sur­viv­ing sec­ond book syn­drome

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS -

Mau­thors who en­joy great suc­cess with their first book be­come ter­ri­fied when it comes to pro­duc­ing their sec­ond. There is enor­mous pres­sure, they’re acutely aware that the world is wait­ing, and there’s usu­ally a con­tract to hon­our. Small won­der, then, that many sec­ond books can fail to de­liver. Swiss au­thor Joel Dicker’s first book, The Truth about the Harry Que­bert Af­fair, sold phe­nom­e­nally well and was quickly trans­lated from the orig­i­nal French. Sim­i­larly, Al­le­gra Hus­ton’s mem­oir Love Child, found it­self be­ing en­dorsed by the likes of Sal­man Rushdie and Joanna Lum­ley.

Joel Dicker’s The Bal­ti­more Boys, is writ­ten as a sort of se­quel to Que­bert, with the same pro­tag­o­nist. Mar­cus Gold­man, in the af­ter­math of Que­bert’s suc­cess, rents a house in Florida to write his sec­ond novel. (A lit­tle meta-fic­tion any­one?) But progress is slow and Mar­cus spends his time with an el­derly un­cle who works in the lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. This same un­cle used to be a multi-mil­lion­aire and fa­ther to Mar­cus’s cousins, the epony­mous Bal­ti­more Boys, with whom Mar­cus hol­i­dayed every sum­mer. Early on we learn that some un­speak­able tragedy oc­curred in Bal­ti­more, as the Boys are no longer around. And through a se­ries of leaps from the 1980s to the present day, the story un­folds.

The plot will cer­tainly keep the reader en­gaged. Dicker has a knack for the slow re­veal, and since his un­cle is a very like­able char­ac­ter, we won­der what has led him from the board­room to stack­ing tins of beans. But if, as has been sug­gested by his first book, Joel Dicker is fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Philip Roth, he needs to in­fuse his nar­ra­tive with a lot more grav­i­tas. For in­stance, he de­scribes his cousins’ fam­ily Thanks­giv­ing din­ners as be­ing “per­fect from be­gin­ning to end”. In­deed. And later in the same pas­sage, hav­ing listed the din­ner’s starters and mains, he writes; “the desserts were not to be out­done, ei­ther”. Re­ally.

Cliches like th­ese have their place. And it’s not be­tween the cov­ers of a novel with lit­er­ary as­pi­ra­tions. There are oo­dles of ex­am­ples such as this. One might be for­given for pre­sum­ing some­thing has been lost in trans­la­tion, per­haps, but this can’t be the case. The trans­la­tor is Ali­son An­der­son, who also trans­lated Muriel Bar­bery’s ex­quis­ite The Ele­gance of the Hedge­hog. That said, The Bal­ti­more Boys is an en­ter­tain­ing read. I’m just not sure if it’s as good as it thinks it is.

Al­le­gra Hus­ton’s first book was a huge hit. The adopted daugh­ter of John Hus­ton, she was brought up in Gal­way af­ter her mother’s un­timely death. And a book about the Hus­ton dy­nasty was bound to sell.

Her sec­ond book, Say My Name, is a novel about an older woman/younger man af­fair. Eve ar­rives home one day to find that her hus­band has dis­ap­peared. She’s an­gry but not sur­prised. Their mar­riage is tired and her only so­lace is her work as a land­scape gar­dener and her var­i­ous finds in an­tique shops. When she un­earths an old vi­ola, split down its belly, she sus­pects she’s found some­thing ex­tremely valu­able, but she needs a real ex­pert to mend it.

En­ter Mi­ca­jah, a young mu­si­cian who knows a master crafts­man spe­cial­is­ing in restor­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. Eve and Mi­ca­jah be­come a cou­ple of sorts. There’s a level of dis­quiet in this novel, sim­i­lar in style to Josephine Hart’s Dam­age, which led me to ex­pect some kind of cat­a­clysmic dis­as­ter. But that doesn’t hap­pen. Or at least, if the turn­ing point in the plot is meant to be the dis­as­ter, then I missed it and was left dis­sat­is­fied. The writ­ing is dark and moody and Hus­ton’s de­pic­tion of a love­less mar­riage is im­pec­ca­ble. Un­like some pas­sages in The Bal­ti­more Boys, this novel is ex­pertly crafted. But then, Hus­ton has had decades of writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as a film and TV scriptwriter — whereas Joel Dicker has barely turned 30. Maybe his best is yet to come.

Nei­ther lives up to the hype. While Hus­ton’s novel is beau­ti­fully writ­ten and lin­ear, but flimsy on plot, Dicker’s novel is plot-heavy and clever, but cer­tainly not a thing of beauty.

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