You can find a story synopsis at the wikipedia entry. Please see it for a synopsis. This post concentrates on my experience with the book and its themes.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was translated from its original Swedish into English by Reg Keeland. Before I get into the review of the book, I feel I must mention the controversy that surrounds the English translation of the novel. The translator Reg Keeland was apparently so aghast with the English editor’s after work that he insisted that the credit of translation be given to a pen name; he was so disgusted with the final output that he wanted no part of it. He especially seemed annoyed with the change in title. The original Swedish was either “The Man Who Hated Women” or “Men Who Hated Women.”
I consider myself a pretty typical American reader, and I have to say, I’d have never, ever picked up a book with that kind of title. “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” plays to our American sense of intrigue, and it does refer to a trait of one of the main characters. I have more issue with one version of the cover image.
The hair and skin color of the woman in the photograph don’t remotely match the description of said “girl” (a woman of about 25 years old). [I have a whole other issue with calling women over age 18 “girl” but I’ll mention that in a bit.]
I haven’t found any interviews with Mr. Keeland to know exactly what his complaints are, but I found the book to flow well regardless. I was never stopped abruptly by unfamiliar cultural nuances or odd dialogue. Knowing that Mr. Keeland was severely disappointed with the final English translation makes me curious what I missed. I’d love to know how this excellent book could be better.
Finding out the original title whilst in the throes of the plot was a strange experience. Before knowing the original title, I really had no idea where the plot was going. Once I had “Men Who Hated Women” in my head, I had different suspicions on where the events were leading. I almost wish I didn’t know, because the shock of the final battles would be even more startling. Then again, I’m not too sure I could’ve stomached it without the forewarning.
If it weren’t for the buzz and the interesting title, I’d have avoided this book. I’m not much of a crime thriller reader. I read all 4 Dan Brown books and enjoyed them, but I don’t search out crime novelists. When I heard rumblings about Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I didn’t catch that the book was in the crime thriller genre. It sounded interesting, so I picked it up from the library.
The book is massive: 465 pages. I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it in the small amount of time I had it on loan from the library; it’s a new book and it had limited release time. I turned to the audio version. By listening to the book on CD, I could fit in some “reading” time while I was running, cooking or cleaning. When I could, I’d pick up the story in the print version right where the audio book left off.
It took weeks and a few different tries to finally get a hold of the UNabridged version of the audio performance of the book. For some reason, the library records have the abridged version and unabridged version under identical records. Other people had requested the print book, so I had to let it go for a while before I could get it back. I’d returned and then signed out the print version again while I waited for the unabridged copy of the audio book to show up.
When I did get the print book back, I was even more eager to continue on with the story. The first few chapters set up the characters so beautifully that I was haunted. Like an “earworm,” an incomplete song that repeats in your head, the characters and scenes would come back to haunt me. The only way to solve an earworm, psychologists say, is to look up the lyrics of the song and sing them through, from beginning to end. It’s thought that earworms occur because your brain is trying to resolve the discrepancy in the lyrics. Solve the discrepancy and the lingering haunt of a refrain disappears. That’s the theory, anyway.
The characters kept coming back to me. I only got to read the first few chapters of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, but it gave me enough of a grasp on the scene and the feel of it that I was irrevocably hooked. It was the scratch I had to itch, the earworm I had to sing.
Once I was set up with both the print and audio versions, I couldn’t put the story down. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. The red herrings are in the details. These details you don’t miss because your state of awareness is raised to breaking heights, just like in any great detective story. “Oh no!” you think (for example) “the spy will see the imprint of the written note. How could our hero be so stupid!” It’s great moments like this that make an all encompassing adventure.
The themes are not for the feint of heart. Violence against women is pervasive, and the “girl” Lisbeth Salander, has experienced every kind of said violence in her short life. You can’t imagine how horrid the violence in the book gets. But that being said, most violence isn’t explained in detail, and there are only two or three scenes that are tough to read and even tougher to erase from your mind. As I said, I’m not a crime reader, so my sensibilities are usually not that resistant; I mostly disregard without hesitation books that grow too violent, instead finding the resolution to the plot online.
Perhaps it was listening to it on CD that got me through the very rough parts, but mostly, it’s readable without too much pain. If you are a wimp like me, go for the audio performance. The actor, Simon Vance, was excellent and it is much easier than reading through the nasty bits.
As a woman, though, some of the scenes of violence and everyday realities were all too familiar. I sometimes feel that men (white men especially) can’t understand what it feels like to be a member of a widely disregarded, hated, belittled (we aren’t “girls”) and beaten group. You always have to wonder if you earn the same salary as your male counterparts, if you lost out on the promotion because of your sex, if you will be safe going places on your own. The main character Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed chick, is one of my favorites, because although she is a victim of this violence, she is not helpless. Her methods are –controversial– but her sense of justice is keen and in tact. Unfortunately, Lisbeth has characteristics that would put her in the male category well before being grouped with the feminine chicks. I’m not sure if the author was trying to tell me to be more like a man if I want to protect myself and my sisters. But as a woman who feels like the balance of justice is often weighed against her group, watching Lisbeth Salander handle situations in her unique way was utterly satisfying.
Another theme in the book is the ultimate hatred, Naziism. I was surprised to learn about the Nazi activity in Sweden before, during and after World World II. I have to admit I wasn’t the most attentive world history student, but this just wasn’t in the curricula. The back flap says this about the author:
Stieg Larsson, who lived in Sweden, was editor in chief of the magazine Expo and a leading expert on the antidemocratic right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.
Reading this, and then reading the book, lead me to believe that there may still be hidden Nazi leanings in the business world of Sweden. I obviously need to do more research on this. Knowing the author’s background, I think it was ultimately his aim to pique our curiosity about this very real racism in our global midst, and this reader surely feels that her eyes are more open than they were before. And isn’t that why we read? I love being whisked away to another place and time by great storytelling, but at the end of the day, I want to feel like I’ve learned something. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo delivers on all fronts.
Have you read it? Tell me what you thought of the book in the comments.