This trilogy of books, alternatively called The Twins trilogy or The Book of Lies, was published in a bind-up by Grove Press, I would highly recommend reading the novels right after the other as part of their value comes from the way they make a larger story together.
The Notebook is written in first person plural, therefor in “we”format. It’s quite an odd and unusual way of writing, and I think, likely to be done badly in more cases than not. However, Agota Kristof manages to create this narrative with precision and with elegance; never in this first book of the trilogy did the narrative feel distancing or like a gimmick. Because the “we”is really the twins – Lucas and Klaus – they resemble one person in many ways, because they are twins and the way they narrate the story you get the sense they are extremely close and have a very hard time being separated even for a short amount of time. They often think like one, behave and act like one, and generally stand as one. Therefor, although the narrator is done in plural it feels intimate, in comparison to one other instance I’ve read this form of writing where I felt very distanced by the use of “we”. The Notebook follows Lucas and Klaus as they are left by their mother to live with their grandmother, during the wartime – and to be left there until the war is over. We see them grow up, learn things – about the world around them and about people, humanity in its many perversions, weaknesses, evilness, desperation, kindness, and so forth. All of the sides to people that they meet, and their interaction with people in turn.
This book is incredibly haunting to read, filled with disturbing and stomach turning scenes and details – Kristof doesn’t stop at any taboo. I’m sure there are many parts in this book that would make many readers incredibly uncomfortable, uncomfortable enough not to keep reading. While I obviously found the book disturbing – and so very, very, sad, I couldn’t help but be in awe for Kristof and her craft. Part of this has to do with the narration being absolutely seamlessly done. Another reason for it is that because of our narrators being young, there’s sort of a lack of critical thinking within the narration. Because of the narrators being who they are, children, everything that happens to them and around them are not told in words of judgement or of spelling everything out, of analyses, or off shaping your reaction to it. There’s enough information for you as a reader to picture every horrifying detail of their situation without having everything being told in words – it’s still there, but it’s done with a subtle hand. There’s room too for different interpretations, especially with the dimensions of truth and lie, of reality and illusion – and having the writing be done in such a way as to leave room for such ambivalence, is the major reason I think The Notebook is far superior to both The Proof and The Third Lie.
The Notebook also quite resembles a fairytale. It has more obvious connections to fairytales in terms of themes and characters or roles, but also shares a sort of structure in the story telling that reminded me much of a fairytale. A fairytale has a certain melody in the writing that Kristof seems to be using too, in The Notebook – each chapter is quite short, filled with different “events” and “truths” the twins are noting down. They tell each other they will only write down true things, facts, and the book is supposed to be what they are writing between them as part of their ‘education’. Each chapter is short and filled with only a few key elements, then there’s the repetition in words, sentences or sentence structure, themes, all of the repetition also serves a purpose and because of this, never feels dull to read either. As I said some of the characters resemble roles out of a fairytale too – like ‘the priest’, or ‘the foreign officer’, or even ‘grandmother’; the majority of the characters have titles such as these rather than names – which strengthens the feeling of a caricature or a template of a person.
The Proof – the second book in the trilogy – is written more traditionally, in third person singular, and resembles other historical fiction I’ve read – especially focusing on the WWII era about, like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. We are now following only one of the twins, as a man, in his everyday life – but get glimpses of his twin brother from time to time. Much of what this book does is to open up to question a doubt that will likely have been planted already in The Notebook for many a reader; the question of whether the twins exist, meaning – if they were really twins, or a sort of invention by one lonely boy in the midst of political turmoil and uncertainty. This question isn’t necessarily answered in The Proof although it comes more to the forefront of the story. The Proof picks up right after The Notebook ended, but because the narration is written completely different it does feel like you’re reading a completely separate thing. The plot in this is interesting enough, and it’s still well-written – actually, I could really see this book work as a movie, but in comparison to The Notebook it’s definitely not as original or complex in my opinion.
Then comes the finale book in the trilogy, The Third Lie, which is definitely my least favourite of the three. I will say that while I think both The Notebook and The Proof could stand on its own and been read for their own merit – I could definitely see The Proof standing on its own, and The Notebook doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ the other two books; but The Third Lie is in my opinion entirely dependent on the previous two books. The Third Lie is interesting as a contrast to the previous books but has little value on its own – which is why it’s definitely the dullest to read, often I felt like I was peeking “behind the scenes”- like seeing an unfinished manuscript of a story. The Third Lie is sort of a continuation of The Proof – but mostly changed perspective to the other twin brother, and going back in time. The first part of The Third Lie is told in first person singular – so we get to see yet another style of narration by Kristof with the same narrators – which is definitely an interesting contrast. For the most part I would say that The Third Lie serves as an alternative telling of the first two stories (The Notebook and The Proof); it writes the story in a different way, following the same events and people, while putting them in different places – and I suppose it could seem as the “true” side of the story, the real way things unfolded, but it’s really quite uncertain which telling of the story is the true one – or even if either telling is true, whether it’s a mix of fact and fiction. The trilogy is called “Book of Lies” for a reason.
The Third Lie is interesting for its alternative telling of the story, for its ‘behind the scenes, let’s get to the bottom of this’ style, and for shifting the narration to the other brother after The Proof. But in all I found it less enjoyable, less enchanting or impressive, than the other two books.
I would highly recommend giving the trilogy a try, or even just the first one or two. But either way you go about it – I think there’s much of Kristof’s strengths that are on display in this trilogy and I would love to read more by her, and seeing what else she is capable of.