Monday, February 8, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larrson (Penguin Group, 2009) 503 pages

As the second novel of the Millennium trilogy opens, we meet Lisbeth Salander again. Here she is a 13 year old held captive by an unidentified man and then we begin to see but a small portion of what she refers to as "All the Evil" which began in her youth and which plagues Lisbeth for all her life and contaminates her relationship with men.

Christopher Hitchens described Lisbeth in a recent Vanity Fair article
Miss Salander is so well accoutred with special features that she’s almost over-equipped. She is awarded a photographic memory, a chess mind to rival Bobby Fischer’s, a mathematical capacity that toys with Fermat’s last theorem as a cat bats a mouse, and the ability to “hack” ... into the deep intestinal computers of all banks and police departments.

Truly a formidable female. Lisbeth has the appearance of a 90 pound waif but has the morality of a vigilante which is why, I think, she is so appealing to readers. Her previous guardian mused:
Palmgren was sure that Salander was a genuinely moral person. The problem was that her notion of morality did not always coincide with that of the justice system.
Flash forward approximately dozen years: Lisbeth has walked out on the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, her older lover, with whom she has brought down and destroyed Wennerström, a particularly venal and corrupt industrialist as well as Martin Vanger, a serial rapist and murderer. Our girl had a very busy year. But at the conclusion of these adventures she suspects that Blomkwist has taken up with an old lover and so she disappears in a fit of pique.

She leaves Stockholm for more than a year on money she embezzles from the Wennerström empire (some 3 billion kronor - today's value CDN$435,362,691). Would Lisbeth do this? Steal from a criminal and go on a shopping spree? She travels to Grenada and various other countries including Italy where she, inexplicably, gets breast implants. This seems out of character to me somehow.

But in Grenada we witness the full velocity of Lisbeth's moral code when she suspects that a man in the next hotel room is assaulting his wife. He soon becomes the object of Lisbeth's wrath in a frighteningly violent scene set during a hurricane. Okay, Lisbeth is a badass and is not to be toyed with. This sets the stage for some later violence and horror.

Back in Sweden, Blomkvist and Erica Berger, the Millennium publisher, agree to publish an account of an investigation into the illegal sex trade involving East European prostitutes put together by a journalist and a criminologist who are a couple. A sinister figure named Alexander Zala slithers through their notes regarding the investigation but his identity is unknown to them or the publishers.

As Lisbeth prepares to return to Sweden, re-enter Lisbeth's new guardian Nils Bjurman, known to readers from the first book. He is plotting revenge on Lisbeth. After he had sadistically raped Lisbeth, she orchestrated her vengeance by hogtieing him, tattooing him on the belly with a nasty message, videotaping the results and blackmailing him. He now plots to have Lisbeth kidnapped and killed by some thugs.

One day, while Mikael is skulking around Lisbeth's apartment (she still refuses to respond to his calls or letters) he witnesses her being attacked, presumably by someone hired by Bjurman. She survives the attack without Mikael's intercession.

The journalist and the criminologist are murdered - the gun used in the murder is linked back to Bjurman and has Lisbeth's fingerprints on them. At the same time Bjurman is also murdered and the police think Salander is involved in a triple homicide. She becomes a fugitive and then real and imagined salacious information about Lisbeth is leaked to the press by her enemies.

Knowing that Lisbeth regularly hacks into his computer Mikael leaves a series of messages for her asking if she knows who killed the three people. She types back one word: Zala. This frightening figure holds a central role in the novel.

To say more would ruin the plot which is complex and at times convoluted. I have to say that Larrson never fails to surprise me as I did not see certain key plot resolutions coming. At one point we have Blomkwist explain the murders to a colleague at the end of the novel and this is welcome as there are so many characters (all referred to by their surnames, even the women) that the reader struggles to keep them straight in her head (hint - the explanation starts on page 467).

But my main concern is that Larsson (now deceased - he died in 2004 of a heart attack although other paranoid theories have since surfaced about how he died) played a dubious game here as a writer and respected member of the Swedish left. On the one hand he openly deplores the injustices against women. There is no question that we, as the readers, are meant to deplore the atrocities inflicted on women. His first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was called Men That Hate Women in Swedish.

Yet he provides an abundance of salacious detail and situations: incest, serial murders, s&m, lesbianisn and bisexuality, fetishes, prostitution, rape, murder. And then he has the sexy, avenging angel Salander (complete with tattoos, piercings, waif-like appearance and now with her new breasts) cleaning up the riff raff. I think this is called having your cake and eating it too ...

Thanks to Bronwyn Kienapple of Penguin Group (Canada) for the review copy!

1 comment:

A Lit Chick said...

Without being too graphic ... what Bjurman forces Lisbeth to do would constitute sexual coercion or assault but not rape. Rape has a specific definition. I'm not saying it was not horrendous but it is not defined correctly here.