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Jan/Feb 2008 Book Reviews

Danish Confusion

Peter Hoeg.
The Quiet Girl.

Random House. 2007. 406 pp.
ISBN: 9781846550607

Reviewed by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! Peter Hoeg's second novel, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (published as Smilla's Sense of Snow in the U.S.), was a huge success and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it. The Quiet Girl, however, is very different. It is a strange and confusing story.

Part of the strangeness is due to the narrator, Kaspar Krone, who is a renowned clown with a most unusual ability. Due to a childhood accident, he hears the world around him as musical keys. He recognizes places by their sound and identifies the sound with pieces of classical music that he knows and loves. He hears people that way, too, and can often predict how they will behave. All this, he imparts to the reader. Kaspar lives in Copenhagen, but he is not Danish. He is deeply in debt, wanted for tax evasion, and on the verge of extradition.

The book is strange, too, because of the special children who have an inexplicable quality (which Kaspar hears as sudden strange silences) that makes them important to the plans of some very odd groups of people. One girl in particular captures Kaspar's attention, and she has a particular interest in him. At first it seems as if she has been kidnapped and is asking Kaspar for help, but several times she turns up unexpectedly to confront him; at other times she seems to be in control of everything. In trying to help her, Kaspar is constantly in danger. Only at the end of the book does her identity and her purpose become clear, and even then nothing is resolved.

The Quiet Girl is confusing, because the narration jumps around in time (which is not in itself a problem) and we are never sure of the nature of the people Kaspar gets involved with. Even those who seem to be helping him turn out to have links with those who are pursuing him. The plot is intricate and tangled, and much of the time I was lost and puzzled. Too many things seemed unreal, too much of the action impossible. Kaspar is threatened on all sides, running, hiding, fighting, tricking people, and even when he is mortally wounded he manages to perform impossible feats. He has a wry sense of humour, but his way of speaking and thinking in abrupt, short sentences made me think, to begin with, that this was a fault in translation. It was not, and I did get used to it.

In the end, however, I lost patience with the story, although the puzzle about the children kept me reading. And the end, surprising as it was, was too unlikely, and the resolution of the plot too contrived, to be satisfying.

Other readers may be gripped by this mixture of mystery, music and mayhem, with a bit of science and philosophy thrown in, and with a few zany characters and a minor love interest to add spice. Sadly, I was not. Yet, since I enjoyed the company of Miss Smilla in Hoeg's earlier book so much, I almost feel I should read The Quiet Girl again and see if it makes more sense the second time around, especially as the publicity blurb describes the book as "a philosophical thriller of rare quality." A "thriller"? Yes. Rare? Well, it is unique. Philosophical? Sometimes, but in a ruminative sort of way. Quality? Questionable.

 

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