When I saw Stieg Larsson’s hit novel on a second-hand book stall, being sold at £1.70, I didn’t hesitate long before buying it. I know it’s been around for a while, but I was far too young to read it when it was first published, and have never really paid it much attention in the years since then. Even when I picked it up off the book stall, I only had a vague idea of what it was about; I knew that it was Swedish and I knew it had some connection to violence and rape and that was about it. It’s safe to say that I was not really prepared for the roller-coaster that the book takes you on as soon as you open it.
The basic premise of the book (you can work out as much from the back cover) is that an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is hired by an old industrialist, Henrik Vanger, to try and find out the truth about the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, which took place about 40 years before the events of the story. Along the way, Blomkvist is aided by a brilliant hacker, Lisbeth Salander (the girl with the dragon tattoo). I’m hesitant to say any more than that, simply because I don’t want to risk giving anything away about the story. It’s one of those books where the thrill is in finding out what happens, of asking questions along the way and having the answers by the end. I have to compliment the late Stieg Larsson on a masterful storyline that I can guarantee will leave the reader fully satisfied by the end, as it did with me.
Before I go into anything else, I want to mention Larsson’s writing style. I don’t read many crime novels, so I don’t know what is conventional in the genre, but he writes in a way that seemed odd to me at first, though I soon got used to it. The only way I can describe it is that he writes like a journalist (which is to be expected, considering he was a journalist beforehand), including all the details of the characters, the settings and the scene with meticulous thoroughness. As such, the world of this book is very realistic, which really helps the power of the story to suck you in.
I can’t beat around the bush any longer. This story is brutal. If there was ever a book that needs an age limit, it’s this one. The theme running through the whole novel is that of violence against women, especially sexual violence. The thing that makes this so much more chilling than any supernatural horror story is that it’s clear that Larsson is telling you that although the events of the novel are fictional, similar things happen in the real world far more regularly than we want to believe. How do I know this? At the start of every section of the novel, there is a page with a real statistic for violence against women in Sweden. Here they are:
1) 18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.
2) 46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.
3) 13% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship.
4) 92% of the women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.
When you read this book, you cannot escape the fact that this sort of thing happens in the real world; it is not mere fiction. In that sense, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is not a simple story that can be read and dismissed – it is a statement about a serious issue, an attempt to bring this dark, dirty secret of the world into the light. It’s a lot to take in, and I certainly would not recommend this book for the faint hearted or those looking for some light reading.
It is hard to summarise exactly how reading this book made me feel. It was stunning, challenging, heart-breaking, repulsive, intriguing. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but I think anyone who is not very sensitive would be fine to read it. It helps that the violence is not there to give the reader sick kicks or something, like in a tasteless horror movie, the violence is there to highlight a real problem. I said that it could easily have an age limit – that’s actually more to do with the themes and the emotions than the actually violence.
I think my opinion of Larsson’s novel can be summed up like this: At 9:25 this morning I finished this book. At 12:25 this afternoon I went to Waterstones and bought the sequel.
R.I.P. Stieg Larsson