- The Quiet Girl
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 424 pp.
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.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.