Hundreds of worthy pieces of fiction are published each year, however, occasionally a book comes along that is said to be so good by so many people that you feel you have to give it a try. The immensely popular books like the Harry Potters and Dan Brown’s murder mysteries wrapped in a dozen Princeton lectures about symbology come to mind. It appears that the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larrson is one of these series of books.
So I reluctantly picked up a copy of the book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson a couple days ago. The book quickly grew on me after the first couple chapters, and I was able to finish it in one day of marathon reading, which I hadn’t exactly planned on doing. Yes, this was for me one of those books that was so good that it was very hard to put down.
As I pondered my enjoyment with reading the book, and its commercial success, as I decided to write a book review to try to analytically determine how Larsson put together a book whose gears are machined finer than a Swiss watch.
This article is a review of this book, and if you are planning to read it then you should be forewarned that there will be more than a couple of spoilers ahead. I would recommend that you read the book without knowing much about the plot as it is fun watching Larsson take the reader down a twisted path full of surprising revelations.
First off, all I knew was that the book was “violent” and that it was set in Sweden. I don’t normally think of Sweden and violence as going hand in hand, . . . like you do peanut butter and jelly. Maybe due to the snow and freezing temperatures it’s hard to see how a riot or drive by shooting could easily erupt, but I’m sure these two types of violence do occur in even this sophisticated european country.
This was an initial turn off, but could million of fans be wrong?
The answer, in brief, is no. The violence, which doesn’t necessarily dominate the book, but certainly is hard to forget, includes the rape of a young woman (the precocious Lisbeth Salander who exacts her revenge on her rapist), a serial killer who targets women, and the rape of other characters both female and male. Many chapters in the book are prefaced by a real life statistic about sexual violence against women in Sweden-and these statistics are very concerning and give the violence against women theme an immediacy that it would not otherwise have.
The author, however, is not fabricating the violent prose out of thin air, but rather he witnessed a young woman being raped when he was 15 and he regretted not having done anything to help her. In this book, the exceptionally gifted private investigator Lisbeth Salander is raped and manipulated by a guardian appointed to look after her by the Swedish government due in part to her mental impairment-Asperger Syndrome-which rather than being a handicap has allowed her to become one of the top three computer hackers in the world. You get the sense that Larrson in a way hoped that the 15 year old he saw raped was able to find justice and escape her aggressors in the same way that Lisbeth ultimately does in his fictional world.
Aside from this subplot, the main plot of the book involves a journalist who has to solve a murder mystery involving a once powerful Swedish manufacturing dynasty.
After reading the first couple chapters of the book, in which Larsson certainly takes his time filling in the background information, I found it hard to relate to the characters, which are mostly Swedish journalists and businessmen. But then as the mystery deepens Larsson must interview and figure out what makes the initially inscrutable Vanger family tick, which as it turns out, boils down to the fact that the family is completely dysfunctional. Feuds, misunderstanding, insanity, hate and fear have turned family members against each other and nobody wants to talk about the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger who was last seen in the mid-1960s on their private island.
While violence against women is certainly present as a theme in the book, I think that what really makes this book interesting is the more encompassing theme of dysfunctional relationships, be they be highly antisocial or self-defeating in nature.
Lisbeth Salander, the book’s protagonist, is caught in a number of dysfunctional relationships which she must save herself from. Eventually she succeeds, but as she has Asperger’s syndrome, she struggles with her relationships with several people in the book. The other protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is a journalist who has a number of bizarre personal relationships and is struggling constantly with journalistic integrity and what to do when a powerful financial backer owns the magazine you work for. The entire Vanger family, on the other hand, is so dysfunctional as to make the Simpsons look like Leave it to Beaver.
The dysfunctionality and opaque nature of the Vangers make figuring out the ending to this book difficult in some respects. While relating to, understanding, and caring about an obscure Swedish dynasty quickly becomes a chore, the recognizability of the Vangers’ web of mistrust and paranoia, if not immediately recognizable, is what kept me turning the pages. What begins as a dry white collar libel case snowballs into a saucy plot involving murder, power and fear.
While the social message of the book, and the real story of Lisbeth Salander, lingers beyond the last page, what was most amusing was living for a brief time in a small Swedish town in the dead of winter watching the Vangers nervously watch themselves and the investigative journalist in their midst. Who knew small town life could be so entertaining?
While the character of Lisbeth Salander was prominently featured in this book, I have no doubt that in the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, we will learn more about her life and struggles which weren’t directly addressed in this book. The real story of Lisbeth Salander’s traumatic life, and how she ultimately deals with what happened to her, I am guessing, will become the main plot for this trilogy of books.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo