Critics have called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair the next ‘Great American Novel’. But it’s written by a Swiss author in French. Does that matter? Lucy Scholes takes a look.

The first recorded appearance of the term ‘The Great American Novel’ was in an essay by John W DeForest, published in The Nation in 1868. According to DeForest it should be a work of fiction that captures “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. At the time of writing, he lamented, “this task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted,” but now, nearly 150 years on, the undertaking, and term (soon thereafter abbreviated to ‘GAN’ by the novelist Henry James) hangs heavy over the head of many a contemporary novelist. Frequent debates about the relevance of the category and the achievability of its aims spring up every few years.

Some have taken novelist William Dean Howells’ line that that very notion is nothing more than a tantalising chimera, a fantastical mythical beast that not only defies capture, but its very existence. Others, however, have made the hunt of it their life’s quest. The novelist Norman Mailer, journalist John Walsh reminds us, “believed in it utterly… He called it ‘the big one’ and dreamed of bagging it one day, as game hunters go after ‘the big five’ of elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard.” But if snared, what exactly would it look like? Walsh offers one of the most intriguing explications: “a single perfect work of fiction that would encapsulate the heart of the US, interpret its history through the light of a single, outstanding consciousness, unite the private lives of the characters with the public drama of its politics. It would be the War and Peace of the great plains and the Manhattan skyline.”

To make Tolstoy’s masterpiece a point of comparison is apt indeed, as the GAN has always been envisioned in counterpart to its European cousins. In his original essay, DeForest admitted that no “tableau of American society” had yet been written to rival the cross-sectional portrait of society offered by the likes of Thackeray or Trollope in England, or Balzac or George Sand in FranceThe GAN remains a distinctly national enterprise but it is born out of an international, specifically European, endeavour.

Immigrant experience

It’s fascinating then to think that so many of those novels vying for the title of GAN have been written by immigrants. Think of Nabokov’s Lolita, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (in Martin Amis’s eyes, the definitive GAN, “Search no further,” he commands, “The quest did what quests very rarely do: it ended”), or even contemporary works by the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; in many ways the evolution of the GAN can be mapped against the various waves of immigration that have lapped at America’s shore. “As its culture was evolving, and as a cultural self-consciousness dawned, America found itself to be a youthful, vast and various land, peopled by non-Americans,” Amis writes. “Amongst such diversity, who could crystalize the American experience?” Precisely these non-Americans it seems, for in the same way that Europe will forever be rendered by the works of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald; non-Americans, many of European origin, have often produced what we’ve come to regard as the most definitively ‘American’ work, both on the silver screen (classical Hollywood was full of émigrés – Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang), and in literature.

Take this rich and varied European history into account and at first glance it doesn’t seem quite so strange that the latest novel to be hailed as a GAN, Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, is written in French by a 28-year-old Swiss author. The novel which stretches the already porous boundaries of the genre is finally being published in English (both in the US and the UK) after phenomenal success as an international bestseller. (It’s been translated into 32 languages and sold two million copies in just a year).

The New Hampshire setting of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair’s comes from Dicker’s memories of summers spent at the coast with his American cousins. It captures his particular American experience, precisely the picture of ordinary existence that DeForest was seeking. The murder mystery around which the plot revolves however is the work of Dicker’s imagination. Thirty-three years after her disappearance, the body of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan, a Nabokovian nymphette with whom Harry Quebert (15 or so years her senior) was having a secret affair, is found buried in Harry’s garden. Not long after her disappearance Quebert published the novel that made his name; a love story that, unbeknownst to all, was based on his relationship with Nola. Its true origins finally revealed and his reputation as a giant of American letters in tatters, Quebert also finds himself accused of Nola’s murder. It falls to his protégée, bestselling author Marcus Goldman, to uncover the truth and this story becomes the basis for Goldman’s difficult second novel:a novel within the novel.

American tale

Dicker’s work ticks many of the GAN’s boxes: the sheer scope of the story, spread over decades and with a keen sense of progression between generations; the cross-sectional cast of characters, from Goldman, the toast of New York, to the nosey small town diner owner who has a finger in every pie; and it has the feel of a series of period pieces, capturing the historic moments thatare written about. On the other hand it lacksthe political backdrop of works such as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Don DeLillo’s Underworld, novels that have a place in the GAN hall of fame because of the seamless way they combine fiction and reality.

That said, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair very much responds to America’s literary history; it has the air of something all-American. There are shades of Raymond Chandler’s thrillers in the murder mystery element and a distinctly ‘Crucible’-like atmosphere inthe small town whose members viciously turn on their neighbours as the hunt for the killer gathers momentum. Then there’s the revelation of dark, disturbing secrets hidden behind the facade of white picket fences and neatly manicured front lawns – a chilling motif that has been used time and again, from the novel-turned-movie Peyton Place to David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. Perhaps most notably, however, it’s in Dicker’s depiction of the relationship between the master and his apprentice, that we find the most convincing argument for the novel’s GAN’s accolade.

“I wanted to write a story about the teacher-student relationship, about the transmission of values,” Dicker tells me, and it is indeed the relationship between Quebert and Goldman, rather than the tragic love story, that’s central to his narrative. The literary endeavour of re-writing one’s own story or someone else’s is distinctly tied up in the promise of self-invention that lies at the heart of the American Dream.

That’s another myth, some would argue, but one that is kept alive by an indomitable pioneer spirit: the same spirit, it would seem, that fuels the quest for the nation’s literary masterpiece. For at the very same time there is a list of widely accepted GANs – from Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn, through The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom– it seems America is continually drawn back to this idea that a single, perfect novel can exist. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair may not be the Great American Novel, but it's certainly a good impersonation of one.  

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.