(A Book Review of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
To call Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo an explosive read is an understatement in my case as I finished the book amid the noise of fire crackers when midnight struck to usher in the coming of the New Year 2012.
It’s no mystery to everyone that the book is accompanied by hype from the time of Stieg Larsson’s untimely death in 2004 caused by cardiac arrest even before the book — the first in a three-part series — is due for publication, up to its big screen adaptation by Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev (which gathered acclaim both in Europe and the U.S.) and was then rekindled anew with David Fincher’s Hollywood version in 2011.
The book opens with the protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, facing the rap for libel charges for publishing a malicious article against the business tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerström. Hitting rock-bottom financially and career-wise, Blomkvist finds himself on an even stranger spot when he was hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate the unexplained disappearance of the old man’s favorite niece — almost 40 years ago during a family reunion on the island of Hedestad — in the guise of writing the industrialist’s biography. The former CEO of Vanger Corporation has been obsessed with the case for years, and it is his wish to find closure to the mystery before he breathes his last. Blomkvist then recruits the help of the pierced, tattooed, and unsociable Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker prodigy, when fresh evidence and a new angle on the case emerge. What the two of them uncovers reach deep into the controversies and intrigues surrounding the Vanger family precipitating to a conclusion that will certainly unsettle even the toughest of readers.
In these days of formulaic writing, a “fast-paced plot” is certainly one of the requirements if one is to write under the crime-mystery genre. However, this very precept is what Larsson cheekily defy in his debut novel. Now I see why some friends who read the book out of curiosity’s (or hype’s) sake gave up reading a few pages in it. There’s no doubt about it, Larsson is copious in his descriptions of places, scenes, and the background of his characters, minor ones included; to add more to this seeming burden is the somehow extraneous talks concerning the characters’ business matters. Yet the devil is in the details, and this very annoying fact is what pulled me in the novel. As I see it, this style rather works for Larsson’s advantage in prepping up the setting for a reader like me who is foreign in the environs of Stockholm and in being able to see his characters in the manner which he intends. Rest assured, the ramblings in the earlier chapters bear relevance to what happens later in the book.
While I do agree that pacing is not Larsson’s forte (whether this improves is yet to be seen when I read the second novel in the series), he makes it up by way of characterization. Larsson peoples his book with intelligent, clever and interesting characters, mainly seen through Lisbeth and Blomkvist. Though they have contrasting personalities and makes for an unusual pair, they complement each other making their team up one of the defining features of the book. I think this is one of the most exciting sleuths that the contemporary genre has to offer so far!
Of the two it’s Salander that mostly fascinates the reader to the point that even outside the plot she continues to do so for she remains an enigma the entire length of the book; there’s so much about her that we haven’t learned yet for the book offers but a glimpse of her dark inner life. At the outset people like Salander weirds us out, but it’s in the way Larsson portrays her that endears and makes the reader root for her. One word to pretty much describe her is complex. Aside from being incredibly smart (well to begin with, who doesn’t like smart character, eh?), what I like about her is her spunk; she doesn’t give a damn about what others think of her and she isn’t governed by the consequence of her actions. While these demonstrate that she’s a product of the environment she’s been exposed to, Larsson also shows her in a vulnerable light easily affected by finer emotions for the people she cared for the most.
Once the mystery at Hedestad gains momentum it will never let the reader go. The unfolding drama provides endless surprises for Salander, Blomkvist and the reader; by turns getting darker and darker as the pages are turned and chilling as the cold Swedish setting. Larsson exponentially transforms what seems to be a locked-island-whodunit from an absorbing family saga into a scathing and cynical political and social commentary on Swedish society that dares to tackle such topics as feminism, the guilt and atonement of past war crimes, the flimsy state of online privacy, children’s abuse and exploitation even under the government’s care and journalistic and corporate ethics. I’ve never found such varied and multi-layered themes from a mere crime-mystery book for years, and it is for this reason that makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a memorable and immediate favorite during the previous year of 2011.
Book #58 for 2011
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
(Hardcover, 2008 Edition)
Started: December 27, 2011
Finished: December 31, 2011