Review: The Secret Life of Writers by Guillaume Musso
Set in an island off the Mediterranean coast, the French author’s latest novel presents a gripping story with many twists and turns that blurs the line between truth and fiction
Guillaume Musso’s The Secret Life of Writers is a thrilling mystery set in a stunning fictional island off the Mediterranean coast. Nathan Fawles is a celebrated Franco-American author of three successful novels. In 1999, at the age of 35, he suddenly announces that he will no longer write any more books, and moves to Beaumont, a beautiful island off the Mediterranean coast — where he lives in seclusion, and completely vanishes from the literary scene.
In 2018, Mathilde Monney, a young Swiss journalist, on a vacation to the island, is determined to secure Fawles’ first interview in 20 years. She goes to the author’s villa on the pretext of returning his missing golden retriever. While Fawles is mesmerised by the woman, he is also suspicious as he feels she is playing a cunning mind game with him. Coincidentally, on the same day, a woman’s body is found on the beach and the island is cordoned off by the authorities. It all comes as a shock to the inhabitants of this peaceful paradise, where crime is practically unheard of.
The gripping story is narrated by the 24-year-old Raphael Bataille, a struggling writer from Paris who goes to Beaumont, where he gets a job at a little bookshop. Bataille, who idolises Fawles, hopes to make contact with him while on the island, and even decides to write a book inspired by his life called The Secret Life of Writers.
Along with Fawles, Bataille begins investigating the brutal murder and more details and information — and stories within stories — are uncovered each day. While piecing together parts of the puzzle, the reader learns the back stories, motives and secrets of each of the people involved — “collateral victims in a story where they were merely shadowy extras” — and eventually discovers how everything is interconnected to one larger “unbearable truth”.
The author Nathan Fawles is the distinctive central point of the story. A surly, recluse with an enigmatic aura, he embodies the angst of a writer and his art — one that has “no method, or rules, or road map.” “In order to write, you’ve got to be in the world and outside it at the same time,” he explains. Fawles believes that success hangs on a misunderstanding, and that being a writer is the least glamorous thing in the world. “You spend your nights sweating blood and tears to churn out a sentence that three-quarters of your readers won’t even notice,” he says.
He refers to publishers as “people who’d like you to be grateful to them for telling you what they think of your book in a couple of sentences, while you’ve been slaving away for two years to make it hang together”. Musso’s Fawles borrows his traits from various writers, including Milan Kundera, JD Salinger, Philip Roth and Elena Ferrante.
The book also makes some relevant observations about the book business referring to the fact that fewer people are now buying books from brick and mortar stores even as online giants take over the ecosystem entirely. “Nowadays, everyone wants to be a writer and no one’s actually doing any reading,” Bataille’s employer points out ironically echoing Philip Roth’s pessimism regarding the future of reading.
The book has some gorgeous descriptions of the “wild, unspoilt” fictional isle of Beaumont—a place without any tourists, pollution or concrete. Its “creeks bubbling with turquoise water, rocky inlets, pine forests and pristine sandy beaches” lend the mystery a rather intriguing backdrop. Musso writes that the fictional island is inspired partly by Atherton in California and partly by Porquerolles, a Mediterranean island off the French coast, as well as the author’s travels to Hydra, Corsica and the Isle of Skye.
As the plot, with its many twists and turns, gradually unfolds, the line between truth and fiction gets increasingly blurred. At the end of the book, Musso writes that, in a sense, the novel illustrates the mysterious process that gives birth to a piece of writing: “Just like a strange dream, little details from the real world can turn up there, but distorted in some way, and become a core part of the narrative as it slowly takes shape.” Thus, some of the incidents in the book have been influenced by real events, such as a Cannon PowerShot that was discovered on a beach in Taiwan, having drifted for six years across the ocean from Hawaii.
Reading The Secret Life of Writers , it is easy to see why Guillaume Musso is a best selling author in France. A line in it states: “The essential quality in a writer is knowing how to captivate their reader through a good story.” Musso definitely has that quality. This page turner of a book is one that writers especially, or anyone who has ever dreamt of becoming one, will love.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel
The views expressed are personal