No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, September 09, 2010

2010/73: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- Stieg Larsson

"Which is worse -- the fact that [he] raped her out in the cabin, or that you're going to do it in print? You have a fine dilemma. Maybe the ethics committee of the Journalists Association can give you some guidance." (p. 461)

An ageing Swedish industrialist engages a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, to investigate the 1966 disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. He'd also like to know which of his relatives has been trying to drive him mad these last forty years by sending him birthday reminders of Harriet. In exchange, he promises information that will redeem Blomqvist, who was jailed for libel after an exposé that proved to be a set-up.

In the process of investigating Harriet's disappearance, Blomqvist (who is apparently irresistable to women) encounters various family members, uncovers evidence of a series of violent crimes, and meets Lisbeth Salander, a young female security specialist with a murky past, 'a rather trying attitude' and a photographic memory.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is tremendously evocative of Sweden. (Or so it seems to me: but I've never visited the country.) There's a marvellous sense of place, lakeside cabins and desolate flatlands: but Larsson pulls no punches about the dark underside of society, endemic misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, Nazism. Each section of the novel is preceded by a statistic relating to sexual crime: "92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police" (p. 399).

Lisbeth Salander is one of these women, though she has no trust in the system -- which has failed her comprehensively, from the unexplored 'All the Evil' in her childhood to the fact she's still classified as 'legally incompetent' -- and resorts to an alternative solution. Salander is the reason I was so engaged with this novel: she's a fascinating character, neither sentimental nor self-pitying. She is competent, and she may be the character who displays most integrity: she does not compromise.

Read for book club: I've actually owned a copy for some time ... and have now acquired the other two in the trilogy. (£7 for both at Sainsburys).

When we discussed this at book club someone raised the point that it wasn't an especially novel crime novel, in terms of the crime: but I don't read a lot of contemporary crime/thrillers, so the crime element worked for me. Yes, the violence in the novel is unpleasant, distressing: but it's not sensationalised, and Larsson doesn't focus on suffering.

I did work out what happened to Harriet, and the identity of the primary criminal: but that wasn't because the plot is simplistic, it's because the novel does present all the necessary evidence for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. There are quite a few red herrings and a couple of useful coincidences to keep things uncertain.

The translation seems good to me, though some of the dialogue is slightly clunky: there are also points where the difference between Swedish and English terminology ("In English they call it 'new evidence', which has a very different sound from the Swedish 'new proof material'" (p.268)) are highlighted. I like this evidence of the translator's presence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

2010/72: Margarettown -- Gabrielle Zevin

She was born Margaret. As a girl, she was May; as a teenager, Mia; as an adult, Marge. When she dies, dhe was Margaret once again. There were other iterations along the way: Old Margaret with the grey hair, the sexy and impossible Maggie whom I adored, the manic depressive Greta, and others, so many others. There were so many Margaret Townes. Sometimes I ask myself, how could Margaret have been so many women at once? And the answer is, Jane, that your mother was either a most extraordinary woman or a most ordinary one. (p. 32)
Margarettown is the story of the love affair of Maggie and the narrator, named only as N___. Maggie isn’t like the other girls: when she says so, N___ writes it off as a typical early-twenties statement. Then, visiting the family home (Margaron), he meets Maggie’s family and realises that she’s really not like other women.

Or is she? Or is N___ lying? (His uncle tells him he’s ‘’sexually unethical’ like my mother and ‘a pathological liar’ like my father. (p. 105)).

There are plenty of fairytale elements in this novel. When N___ first meets Maggie, he finds her lying on a heap of mattresses, beneath which is, not a pea, but a pen. The child May draws a picture of the frog prince, and tells N___ that the original story has the princess throwing the frog against a wall, ‘beating the prince out of him’. And there’s another story, of a girl bewitched: the enchantment would split her into multiple ages until she found true love. When the daughter found true love, the spell would be broken and she would become one again ... I just made all that up, of course. (p. 85)

Most of the novel is N__’s narration, but part is a third-person account of the first years of Maggie’s marriage, and part is told from the perspective of prenatal twins. Maggie’s secrets, and her past, are explored by allusion: little is explained, but explanations are unnecessary. Maggie’s multiplicity fascinates.

This is a quietly impressive novel. It reminded me at times of Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife -- for the romance, for the unsentimentality, for the unquestioned mundane magic of it.

2010/71: Cards of Grief -- Jane Yolen

The specification is that you, Aaron Spenser, did wilfully and unlawfully violate the Cultural Contamination Act in regards to your relationship with an inhabitant or inhabitants of the newly opened planet Henderson's IV in such a way that you have influenced -- to the good or to the bad -- all culture within their closed system forever. How say you to the specification, guilty or not guilty?
I have been more changed than they by the contact, Lieutenant Malkin.
Guilty or not guilty to the specification?
Guilty -- and not guilty, Lieutenant. (p.93)

2132 A.D.: humankind is exploring the galaxy and encountering a variety of alien races, including the might-as-well-be-human inhabitants of Henderson's IV, 'known in the common tongue as L'Lal'lor, the Planet of the Grievers'. L'Lal'lor is a matriarchal society [it was a nice change, after Xinran's Miss Chopsticks, to read a novel where mothers are pitied for bearing sons] where there is no word for love, but where the act of formal grieving has been raised to an art.

The inhabitants are suspicious of the strangers from the sky, 'the men without tears': but the arrival of the exploration party coincides with the discovery of a new Griever, Linni / the Gray Wanderer, who is assumed to be the subject of a prophecy indicating great change.

Aaron Spenser's initial investigations indicate some important differences. The males are only fertile for five years; the population comprises six 'worker' tribes and a aristocracy of Royals (tall, slim, fair of face, golden-eyed), whose byblows are brought back to the capital whenever they are found; the Royals in particular display some unsettling biological idiosyncrasies, such as increased body temperature when bonding with somebody.

Spenser, being an anthropologist, has a good working knowledge of folklore and fairy tales: he realises very quickly that singing 'Tam Lin' -- the tale of a thwarted Queen -- to the assembled nobles isn't going to go down well. He slips up anyway, with a chance remark about having nobody to grieve that leads to an impromptu re-enactment of a well-known fairytale.

But Aaron Spenser is (literally) the blue-eyed boy who can do no wrong, so he's befriended by B'oremos, the young prince who brought Linni to the capital. Cue more fairytale tropes: distortion of time (which runs faster on the ship in orbit than on the planet, due to the Hulanlocke Rotational Device), a lost child, doomed love. And yes, there is great change.

This is a short novel (remember when novels were under 200 pages long?), told from several viewpoints -- Linni, B'oremos, Aaron Spenser -- and interspersed with transcripts of traditional tales which supply context for the Grievers' social structure and traditions. The different viewpoints add dimension: it's possible to triangulate them to arrive at a more objective perception of plot and setting. (And sometimes the differences in interpretation are hilarious.)

At first I thought this was Linni's story, and it is Linni who is the pivot for events: but it's as much Spenser's story, and B'oremos who is the first of his people to understand what 'love' means. Cards of Grief isn't a cheerful tale, but it has the structure of a fairytale if not the unequivocal 'happily ever after'.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

2010/70: Miss Chopsticks -- Xinran

Imagine coming to a city like Nanjing when you have never seen a television or a car... Her heart is like a blank sheet of paper, ready to absorb whatever lands there. (p. 183)
Miss Chopsticks, which tells the stories of three country sisters who go to Nanjing to find work, is based on the true stories of three young women -- not actually sisters, but Xinran (a successful journalist in China and now in Britain) felt that their stories ‘seem to speak for so many others’. (p.2) Set in the early years of the 21st century, Miss Chopsticks vividly illustrates the rise of commerce and the massive social changes that have resulted from economic reforms.

“.... girls are called chopsticks and boys are called roof-beams. They all say that girls are no good because chopsticks can’t support a roof ...” (p. 12)

The girls come from a family of six children, all female. “Their father had been so disappointed by his lack of sons that he had never given his children real names, and so they became known by the order in which they had been born.” (p. 6). Three, the first to flee the village due to the imminence of an arranged marriage, goes to work in the ‘Happy Fool’ restaurant, where her skill in arranging and displaying fresh produce makes the place very popular. Five, who is illiterate and naive, finds work in the Water Dragon’s Palace, a therapeutic spa which uses traditional Chinese medicine and state-of-the-art plumbing to attract a wealthy clientele. Six, who was the only girl in the village to finish middle school, ends up working in the Book Taster’s Teahouse, where she is surrounded by books and has the opportunity to meet foreigners and improve her English.

Each of the girls experiences considerable culture shock. City life is utterly unlike anything they could have imagined, and each must change her way of thinking, her behaviour and her dreams to fit with what she finds. ‘Stone-hearted’ Three falls in love; ‘stupid’ Five reveals a talent for engineering; ‘too-clever’ Six learns a great deal about the world, and about China’s place in it, and becomes rather cynical.

Reading Miss Chopsticks felt like opening a window onto a society with very different rules, mores, goals. Xinran’s Nanjing is more alien than many SF settings I’ve read. This impression is heightened by the girls’ culture shock as they encounter city ways. “‘In many ways,’” Six’s employer tells her, “‘people in the countryside are living in a different century from those in the city, and it will take them many years to catch up.’ She did not feel able to tell Six that in her view the Chinese countryside was as much as five hundred years behind the city.” (p. 86)

The translator, Esther Tyldesley, explains in a foreword some of the difficulties of translating Chinese to English: the prevalence of puns and classical references in Chinese prose, the huge variation of dialects, the densely-layered sense of history and culture. There’s often a sense that a line of dialogue is funnier in the original Chinese: there are also passages which expand upon idiosyncrasies of language and dialect. (Five is bemused by a northern girl who uses different words for ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘her’.)

Xinran provides an afterword in which she recounts her attempts to track down the girls whose stories she’d borrowed. Contacting anyone in modern China (where cellphones and email are only for the rich, the Westernised, the politically adept) isn’t easy. Eventually Xinran discovered that the ‘Happy Fool’ restaurant had closed, and that the Book Taster’s Teahouse had been shut down for distributing ‘banned books’. The girl whose story inspired Three ended up in an arranged marriage after all. ‘Six’ could not be traced. The girl encoded as ‘Five’, though, had had more success: she’d been sent on an advanced training course, despite her illiteracy.

I’m sobered by the girls’ acceptance of their feminine inconsequentiality: I’m heartened by their sheer determination and refusal to give up hope. And I’m appalled that millions of women are still enduring the layers of oppression and discrimination described here.