California Literary Review

The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg

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October 29th, 2007 at 10:13 am

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The Quiet Girl
by Peter Høeg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 424 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Lost In Translation?

Translators are an underappreciated lot. When they’re bad, we mock them and when they’re good, we ignore them. Nadia Christensen displays all the athleticism of a champion wrestler in pinning down Peter Høeg’s new book, The Quiet Girl, and credit must be paid.

For this reviewer, it’s also a disclaimer, for while the book is a breathless display of language and idea, I couldn’t quite hold onto it. The cityscape of Copenhagen, the blues and blacks and whites and grays of its modern, impersonal architecture, the midnight fringes where outsiders linger – it rears up at you, but I was constantly aware of a language and culture hidden behind the words that I could not reach.

Perhaps this sense of alienation would please Høeg and, indeed, please his main character, a deep-in-debt circus clown named Kasper. Kasper is a genius of sorts, blessed with the ability to hear on a deeper level than any around him. He might be able to tell you the mechanisms of a watch in a pocket, the mood of his lover, or the specific geography of a place.

It’s a clever stylistic move. For as we follow Kasper’s involvement in a bewildering conspiracy to do with a missing girl and a group of special children, we are privy to thoughts and feelings that a normal person would be hard pressed to describe:

“Kasper could hear the intimacy between his parents, and also the passion, the caution. He would not have had a word for it. But he was able to sense that if you want to have the experience of a home that’s meaningful and open and natural, like Bach’s music and the big cats on the savannah, it costs something…”

Kasper’s hearing attunes him to becoming a legendary performer in the ring but it also makes him vulnerable to those who want to abuse his talents for their own gain. Chopping and changing between the past and present, Høeg takes us into a labyrinth of untrustworthy lovers, odd coincidences, show business precepts, child kidnappings, nuns with symphonic personalities, and philosophic musings:

“Balance and prayer are self-confrontational. Behind the muscular and spiritual exertion there must be a point of effortless calm. At that point you meet yourself.”

Using his hearing as a detective tool and taking advantage of skills learned in the circus, Kasper charms, talks, fights, and wriggles his way through the book. While he searches for the titular girl, whose gift of silence is an uncanny counterpoint to the noise that surrounds him, the omnipresent forces of authority and greed try to catch him.

Confused? I was. The book is billed as a taut thriller, but it’s hardly that. A cry against the depersonalizing forces of society, yes; a strange mixture of gratuitous violence and haphazardly funny escapes, sure; an dazzling exploration of sounds in language, quite; but it has none of the crisp bite, the pared pace of a conventional thriller.

Does it matter? Well, if we go by the title, yes, it does. The quiet girl is the hinge on which Kasper’s life changes (and perhaps a literary comment on the recent crimes against children in Northern Europe).

Yet we are only given a few instances when they meet face-to-face and their moments of intimacy are fleeting. A thriller is often a race, but without the understanding of exactly why this girl is so great a prize, it makes it harder to follow the runner.

Høeg was a dancer and actor before turning writer and father, so it’s hard not to cross the line between fiction and reality. Does Høeg manifest the same irresistible magnetism and subsequent uneasiness with women as Kasper? Is Kasper’s tender relationship with his dying father, a small spot of calm in the book’s maelstrom, a reflection of Høeg’s own experiences?

And what should one make of Kasper as professional clown, as the archetype who traditionally stands outside of society and comments on its inadequacies? Surely there’s an argument to be made that Høeg as an author wants to fulfill a similar function.

If this is the case, I might wish to ask Høeg why he chose to combine Kasper’s sensitive exploration of his life and work with an acidic, almost Viking-inspired, focus on bruises and bullets.

Is it an echo of an old Scandinavian sensibility, the same that inspires Hamlet’s bloodbath? Or a modern comment on the dispensability of human life? More importantly, does it make the book, already a fibrous knot of structure and purpose, any stronger?

I’d have to ask him in Danish, of course, after I’ve learned the language, read the book in the original, and lived in Copenhagen for, say, ten years. Until then, as a reviewer I’m remaining dissatisfied, both with the book and my own cultural deafness.

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  • Shelley

    So far I’ve found this latest novel of Peter Hoeg to be potentially fascinating, and in reality very frustrating. He seems to leap from one scene to the next so quickly that the narrative and plot is lost. What is left is a very defined character of Kasper the clown,who is of unique and unusual talents. To me it seems that everyone Kasper meets in the novel are unformed and appear to be only there to accentuate Kasper’s incredible talents. He has an amazing ability of hearing muical tones in anyone and thing and can ‘listen’ so deeply that he can ‘know’ anyone he meets in a very profound way. But I feel I’m on the verge of giving up on finishing this novel eventhough Peter Hoeg is one of my all-time favourite writers, because it lacks fast-paced thrill with a character devopment I can understand. *sigh*

  • http://eeprof.com Todd Finley

    I am half-way through the book. It takes patience, but my patience is rewarded with cultural insights and an enhanced appreciation for the music of life.

  • http://academic.evergreen.edu/z/zita/ E.J.Zita

    Hoeg transports the reader with the power of sound in many dimensions, with his clean language and imagery. (There’s too much action adventure for my taste, but I will still re-read this book.) Brilliantly strong women ally with gifted but handicapped men to rescue magically powerful children. Music, spirituality, and art are woven into a rags-to-riches life that is redeemed by communal purpose as much as by love. The protagonist’s near-death analysis (and performance?) of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor is a peak in the book in several ways – classic Hoeg prose.

    I am confused by the ending and would like to discuss this with others who enjoyed the book, without ruining it for those who have yet to finish it. Please email me at ejzita@comcast.net

  • Sarah

    Is this response list still active? I’ve just finished the book; I need to talk with a fellow reader.

  • Pearl

    Shelley, I am listening to this awesome book on tape. So far I am enthralled with the author’s ability to combine philosophy and analytical psychology and the notion of archetypes. I am listening to this novel as if it were my dream … the references to the collective unconscious, Kierkegaard, Jung, Nietzsche … wonderful.

    I don’t pretend to “follow” the plot but then, who said plot had to be linear??

    Could I write more and hear from you once I am finished? I only listen when I drive so …

  • Janet

    I’m in the middle too and would love to talk about it when I finish, probably later this week. I’m so confused! This is my first Hoeg book, and I love parts of his prose. He reminds me just a tad of Mark Helprin (who I adore in all genres), and that’s very attractive. But the plot is so all over the place that I’m reeling! It’s a rewarding challenge, and when you consider how banal most modern fiction is, much fun.

  • http://tapioca.tv audubon

    I read this immediately as soon as it came out. I’ve been a big Hoeg fan for years and was so excited to find he’d published a new book. Sadly, there was no internet discussion on the book at that time, but I really want to figure out what the heck happened in the end. I sent the novel to a friend abroad, hoping she would shed some light on it, and that was months ago so I can’t remember all the details — all I know is I was very confused, but really want to hear other peoples’ reactions to the ending. I’m at audubon@tapioca.tv — email if you have any insights!

  • marion

    A wonderful read! Almost like living a dream: hopping from the present to the past and back… I like the book very much – as I did with Smilla’s sense of snow!

  • Yvonne

    I too, find the book a little hard to follow, and have several times considered giving up on it, but Casper is such an interesting character, and Claire Marie so different a take on the complexities of children in the 21st century, that I keep reading. I am glad that I did. Even though the book is way “out there,” there are passages of great beauty and insight and they make the book worth plowing through.

  • Clyde

    I’m about half way through this great novel. Its a mystery in many senses. There is so much to admire. You can really get lost in layer after layer without understanding everything that’s going on. It would be good to have comments from the author to throw some light on the mystery that this novel is.

  • http:/www.optimumself.com/ Simple Meditation

    Excellent content and style…keep up the good work!

  • DrJ

    Fascinating book. Yes, it’s confusing, takes effort to follow. As I read it at first, I thought most of it was fantasy. Then I realized nearly everything was literal. (I still wonder about the scene when Kasper confronts Stina in the sauna /steambath.) So I went back and re-read so I could grasp the characters and the chronology accurately. Though I am still uncertain about some things, most of the pieces fell into place…And very much worth it! I’ve never re-read a novel while still reading it. Also worth looking up (e.g YouTube) characters like the famous clowns Kasper talks about. I started a map in Google (under drjonmack). Contribute if you feel interested.
    By the way, I read a review that said the ending tied everything up neatly. That surprised me as I was as confused as everyone else. So I re-read and it began to make more sense.
    I think it’s also largely irrelevant whether or not it’s a thriller. No, it certainly isn’t a typical page-turner. It’s something else: A novel. So was Smilla, though it certainly had a more classic conclusion.
    I love a book that opens up a world and set of characters to explore that have some depth to them.

  • Shirley Walden

    I have just finished ‘The Quiet Girl’and was fascinated by its brilliance. If it hadn’t already been overdue at the library I’d have read it again immediately. I did re-read bits for clarity near the beginning but soon decided to just flow with the strangeness. I think the ending was good. It didn’t cross every ‘t’ or dot every ‘i’ but let the reader’s imagination embellish the author’s words.

  • Nicholas in Wales

    I agree about the work of the translator. There are so many unusual and delicate descriptions in this book that the translator needs to be a writer of exceptional talent. This is clearly the case with Nadia Christensen.

    For me, the storytelling spell was occasionally broken in the early part of the book by the appearance of some American words. I find American English works well in books or subtitled films from, say South America. In books or films with a European culture though, American words seem jarring and disruptive. Rather like the small foreign bodies in the groove of a vinyl record that cause the stylus to jump.

    I have been reading this book in small doses over a couple of months and have about 30 pages left to read. It is not the sort of story that runs like a stream; it is more like tides that ebb and flow, washing over the reader with images, events and thoughts.

    I don’t usually like ‘difficult’ novels but this is an exception. All the difficulty is entirely justified; it’s not just the author playing silly buggers.

  • DrG

    Interesting with fascinating techniques of language etc, BUT, what happens in the end remains the biggest mystery of all to me. I’ve re-read the ending also; I still have no idea what may or may not have happened somewhere beneath the streets of the city. I think the author was indeed playing silly buggers with the “conclusion”.

  • Nicholas in Wales

    Dear Dr G,

    It’s good to know someone is still reading this page. I agree that the ending didn’t really tie up the loose ends and it wasn’t really a conclusion. But then, it wasn’t a conventional story. I enjoyed the journey and didn’t really mind the fact that the journey’s end was a bit of an anti-climax.

  • Dee Derbyshire (UK)

    I have just discovered this talented author through Miss Smilla – I love the character,the plot is fascinating and I cannot wait to read more and see the novel.

  • Nicholas in Wales

    Dee, I look forward to reading your observations.

  • Pate’

    I am hardly disappointed in this book – am re-reading because I loved it so much and sought out this chat to help clarify a few confusions.

    I think this is indeed a taut thriller, that the other characters are left purposely half drawn as that is how Kasper sees them. He’s so involved in himself – having hearing like his would make someone a little too inwardly focused, don’t you think?

    A complaint: those USELESS maps. Too often streets or locations cited aren’t even on the map so why bother with them? I wished they were better so you could follow Kasper’s roving.

  • http://calitreview.com Jim & Pam Stoneback

    I’m on my second reading of Quiet Girl. From my first reading, two years ago, developed a delayed obsession to own a Lotus Elise.

    During my second reading I’ve had to acquaint myself with the some of the music of Kaspar Krone and in doing so, discovered Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations. For that alone, I am most grateful to Peter Hoeg. Also Chopin’s Prelude in A-Minor (beautiful!), Die Kunst der Fuge, the Chaconne, and both serious- and rock versions of Bona Nox (both outstanding!)

    I can see that for the third reading I’ll have to take notes in an attempt to map the chronology. I will also spend more time with Google Maps which have great coverage of Copenhagen.

    The Quiet Girl is a demanding read but well endlessly engaging and well worth the effort.

  • Deborah G

    This is a totally amazing piece of work. I notice that no reviewer has mentioned the enormous amount of research that had to have been done. Not only the music, but architecture, electronics, auto mechanics, religion, food, medicine, drugs, ad infinitum. Bravo!! I will read again.

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