The book with the chimerical patterning: a Larsson in genius.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is far from just another batch of books that have been drawn into a marketable trinity. Between the pages lies something great: each book is a trilogy in itself. Superlative author Larsson not only weaves three major characters – in this case Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth Salander, and Millennium magazine – into a single viable plot, but artfully assigns equal importance to each of them.

The first volume, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, concerns the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger, who vanishes without trace in the 1960s. Despite a lengthy investigation and persistent search effort, Harriet is never found and a lifetime of questions are subsequently left unanswered. Her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger – patriarch of the wealthy Vanger family – spends forty years agonising the mystery before finally employing disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve it once and for all.

Blomkvist is no stranger to controversy; he is the anti-establishment journalist and editor-in-chief at Millennium, a controversial whistle-blower magazine that seeks to expose corruption and seediness in the corporate sector. He is demoted from the magazine when found guilty of libel against powerful business man Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. But Blomkvist’s loss is Vanger’s gain; Vanger has evidence of insider dealings that, if published, will ensure Wennerstrom’s demise. He promises to hand the information over to Blomkvist if, in return, Blomkvist leads a private investigation into Harriet’s disappearance. Blomkvist agrees to do so under the guise of writing the family tome. He is – of course – successful in unlocking fresh evidence regarding the case and ultimately manages to unlock the mystery.

Along the journey, Blomkvist enlists the services of the spiky, outwardly chaotic and sexually turbulent Lisbeth Salander, the subject of the book’s title. As much talented as she is fractured, Salander is an outcast in a society that has failed to understand her. She is the unlikely heroine of the text – edgy, damaged and irrepressible, but savvy, judicious and perspicacious nonetheless.

Girl is a striking, engrossing read from the outset. Larsson writes with formidable imagery, painting his characters with meticulous care and choosing locations that are both engaging and desirable. He turns the banal into the extraordinary and the shocking into distasteful acceptability. His ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach means that he is brave to tackle any subject, no matter how abhorrent. Incense, bestiality, rape, murder, adultery, lesbianism, fraud and identity theft are just a few of the themes that Larsson happily paints throughout his text.

Indeed the subject matter is, at times, gritty, grotesque and unquestionably visual. The extent to which Larsson guides the reader through one particularly depraved aberrance of human nature (peer rape) may be unnecessary and uncomfortable for some, but offers a believable insight into the mind of a deviant.

The plot does dip its toe into not-so-believable territory; such as when Salander travels on fake passports to several major European cities then successfully disguises her tattooed, pierced exterior beneath the style and class of a refined, elegant heiress. There are also several leaps of faith that are crucial to the believability of the plot, such as the token travel time between outback Australia and Sweden, and the far-fetched methods employed to solve some of the clues. Likewise, several of the clues themselves (such as the numbers in Harriet’s Bible) are relatively obvious, and it is difficult to believe that they were missed in the original police investigation following her disappearance.

Furthermore, in order to follow the plot-line the reader is expected to pay close attention to the Vanger family tree and become acquainted with the individuals. Trying to remember who’s who in the Vanger world may slow some readers down. A diagram would have been a useful inclusion.

Originally penned in Swedish as Men Who Hate Women, Larsson drew his inspiration from a variety of unsavoury sources. According to his biography on StiegLarsson.com, he created Lisbeth Salander after witnessing a 15-year old girl being gang-raped by youths. He did not intervene to rescue the girl, then spent the rest of his life regretting it. Her name was Lisbeth.

The magazine, Millennium, is modelled on the real-life Expo Foundation and its flagship publication Expo. An active anti-racism lobbyist and chaser of right-wing extremists, Larsson co-formed the group in 1995 to expose neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism and racial discrimination. His work enraged fascists and made him a target for stalkers and vandals. Much like his character Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson lived his life under constant threat of violence and death.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is controversial, fast-paced and packs a punch that will leave you breathless. It promises a wild ride from start to finish and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. If there was ever an argument that – like movies – novels come with an advisory classification, this would be one perfect example.

The English translation is highly regarded as an impressive parallel to the original text and easily as good as other notable translated works, such as those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Umberto Eco. The great disappointment is that Larsson, who died in 2004, did not live to enjoy his accolade.

 

2 Responses to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Book Review”

  1. Paula Ellery says:

    Great review Susan!

  2. lucy marquis says:

    I’m reading this at the moment & thoroughly enjoying it (although I’ve seen the film already). I have to agree with you about the missed clues and certain unbelievable elements, in particular the ending, which I had previously assumed was only added to the film for narrative and visual effect. That aside it’s a great read and an excellent review, thanks Suze x