Sunday, October 23, 2011

the girl who played with fire: review

As with the first book in the Millennium trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I struggled to finish The Girl Who Played With Fire. Actually, that's not accurate - with both books I struggled with the first third or so, and then couldn't put it down. I find the translated Swedish, or perhaps Stieg Larsson's savant-like attention to detail, labourious. And yet the story moves at a pace that sweeps me into it like a horrifying roller coaster through hell. 

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My bigger issue with reading the Millennium trilogy - the third and final book is coming up soon in my book stack - is that I am struggling to reconcile my enjoyment of the content with the reality of its themes. As someone who has experienced sexualized violence, how can I read about it for entertainment? As someone who has seen the impact of bullying and neglect on the mental health of families and individuals, how can I relate to the book as 'just a story'? As someone whose colleagues help women escape relationship violence and see every day the gender power imbalance that still exists in our society and its real impacts on the safety and security of woman and children ... well ... I guess you see my point here.
The titular girl is missing for much of this second story; missing, but not so much missed. The introduced characters add an interesting texture, particularly in the persons of her lover Miriam Wu and her boxing trainer Roberto Paulo. And, much of her story is filled in through other characters - ones we already know from Dragon Tattoo as well as new players. The most fascinating character is only alluded to until the final chapters, and since the mystery of that person is crucial to the plot, I won't say any more here.

A minor character who is skillfully managed in this volume is Holger Palmgren, Salander's lawyer who suffers a stroke early in Dragon Tattoo. Particularly compelling is his recovery from that stroke once Salander begins to visit. I would have to ask some work colleagues how accurate said recovery is, but from what I've learned about acquired brain injury, relationships provide stimulation, motivation and hope for people post-injury, so Palmgren's improvement not only makes sense but also provides some encouragement in what is otherwise a bleak landscape.

In the end, when these books aren't turning my stomach they are engaging my imagination. The characters are compelling, in their train-wrecky way. But it's really the plotting that moves the stories and keeps me reading. Where Larsson's grocery list detailing drones in describing a shopping trip to IKEA, it builds layer upon layer of tension in the movement of the story; delivering blow by slow-motion blow in the fight scenes, and inflections of meaning in human interactions slowed down by the act of observation.

I will read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest soon and I've no doubt that I will again struggle to distance my fascination with the story from the reality of what it presents. But I will also learn more as a writer about managing detail, building characters over time, and moving plots in slow motion. And that will make the reading more rewarding than even the great story does.


  1. I love your last paragraph. I shy away from books that don't seem like "my kind of story" and I have to constantly remind myself to pick up something that doesn't interest me but that I've heard is well-written and just read it for the writing. And what do you know, most of the time I end up enjoying the story, too, because that's what good writers do.

  2. Thanks, Alyssa. I'm trying to practice lately to 'read-as-a-writer' and learn from what I read instead of just devouring stories. As for variety, it helps that my dad loves recommending books to me that I wouldn't normally choose - like this trilogy. He has good taste, in general. :)


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