Thursday, April 22, 2010
In Which Trai Reviews 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'
The Book: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book one in the Millennium Trilogy)
The Author: Stieg Larsson
How I Found It: It popped up in a couple emails I received from Amazon, and I saw the trailer for the movie either shortly before or after reading this review from Smart Bitches.
The Review: I've never been so surprised to love a book before. I'm not really a mystery person, besides the Dexter books, and I'm not quite sure if those can be considered mysteries when pretty much everything is laid out from the start. I'd read some good things about this book, but it didn't sound like my thing. And wow, am I glad I gave it a shot.
The scene is Sweden. We begin by seeing an old man in his office. It is his eighty-second birthday and he has just received something in the mail-- a pressed flower in a frame. He calls his friend, a retired policeman. They speculate about the flower, as it is the forty-fourth flower he has received, like clockwork, on his birthday every year. The old man breaks down in tears.
Next, we meet Mikael Blomkvist. He is a financial journalist for the magazine Millennium, and he has just been convicted of libel and sentenced to three months in prison. He published a story about the corrupt practices of a businessman, Hans Erik Wennerstrom, and popular belief is that he made it all up.
Soon enough, Blomkvist receives a job offer from the man with the flowers, whose name is Henrik Vanger. It turns out that his niece, Harriet Vanger, disappeared over forty years ago in 1966. The first few flowers were her birthday gifts to him. All the rest were mailed every year after she disappeared, seemingly to torment him. The day Harriet disappeared in 1966, an accident left the island inaccessible for twenty-four hours. No one could get on or off. By the next morning, Harriet was gone.
Henrik offers Mikael a job. He is to write a chronicle of the Vanger family, though his real purpose is to investigate Harriet's disappearance, which has tormented him for over forty years. In return, Blomkvist can receive information that could help restore his reputation and take down Wennerstrom. Blomkvist agrees, though he is certain he will not be able to make progress on the case.
Into all this comes Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old brilliant hacker with almost no social skills and a very firm moral compass. Declared mentally incompetent by the government, although she is anything but, she is forced to surrender her bank account and her freedom to a legal guardian. Salander has, all her life, been subjected to brutal physical and sexual violence, and the guardianship is no exception. Salander was hired to run a background check on Blomkvist, and eventually their paths collide entirely by accident as Blomkvist is drawn further and further into the mystery surrounding Harriet's disappearance.
I'll start by saying that this is not an easy read. In a way, it is-- it is absolutely compelling and I firmly believe that this is the best, most absorbing book I've read in at least a few years. But emotionally and as a girl, it's very difficult to swallow. This book very much concerns violence against women and the violence is most definitely brutal. I had one of the most intense reactions I've ever had to a book during the most disturbing scene, a brutal rape. I was shaking and felt like crying. I literally felt like I couldn't breathe. In a way, it was so completely satisfying to see Salander's absolutely merciless attitude towards men who abuse women. I luckily have never been the target of sexual violence, but I do know what bullying was like. Salander is almost a stand-in for any woman who has ever felt victimized in any way, and this was why I empathized with her. Maybe that was why I reacted so strongly to the scene. I have never felt so utterly revolted by a character as I have with the men in this book. I have to give Larsson credit for writing a horrifying yet incredibly captivating story.
I found that most of the complaints I'd read about the book didn't apply for me. I'd read about a slow beginning, but I didn't notice, because I read that part of it during a long bus ride when I had little else to do, and lo and behold I was past the section and met Salander, who absolutely fascinates me. She is a fantastic heroine and I'm eager to read the next two books in the trilogy simply to follow her exploits and learn the mysteries of her past. I was really cheering for her through the book, and she is what makes the book so interesting. (She is the girl with the dragon tattoo. The book is right to be named after her.) I will admit some of the details were very repetitive-- I could count on one hand the amount of times a character ate something other than a sandwich-- but the story was good enough that I barely noticed it.
The story was very well put together and definitely took a lot of time and effort on Larsson's part, I'd assumed. I had almost nothing figured out as it went along; the plot twisted enough to keep me guessing, and I was never entirely sure who I suspected in the disappearance of Harriet. It was nicely paced and enough things were left open for the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, which I have already bought. I think at least part of the reason why the book was so absorbing was that it was written (or translated) well. The Smart Bitches review points out inconsistencies in characterization and some clunky writing in relation to the relationships between men and women in the novel, and these things are true, but they didn't distract me much as I read.
The characters themselves are very interesting. Lisbeth I've already mentioned; she is an amazing creation. Blomkvist is an easy enough fellow to spend the majority of the book with; I didn't have any problems with him. Lisbeth is a strong enough female for anyone, but the portrayal of Erika Berger, Blomkvist's best friend and lover, was also a strong point. She is a strong, determined woman and even if I didn't understand how her husband is okay with her and Blomkvist still sleeping together, I liked her character.
Even if the subject matter made the book difficult to read at points, I still found it an amazingly readable mystery and a fascinating look at what Larsson felt was wrong with some Swedish social and governmental systems. If these are the types of things really going on over there, I'd vote for reform in a heartbeat. It's a shame Larsson passed away after delivering the first three manuscripts for the series-- seven more books were planned, and a fourth was mostly written but cannot be finished due to the law over there. I'm going to start The Girl Who Played with Fire right away and buy The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest when it comes out, but I will definitely be saddened when I cannot look forward to the continuing adventures of Lisbeth Salander.
(Note: The three novels were made into a miniseries over in Sweden that is seeing a theatrical release here, or at least the first film has. I will be seeing that this weekend; expect my review on either Saturday or Sunday. I hope the other two films will follow. There's going to be a Hollywood remake in the future, but somehow I feel as though changing the language to English and giving the script over to Hollywood will diminish it. Until then, I'm sticking with Sweden.)