No one disputes that this novel is a page turner. The plot is propelled forward by a vigilante rescue of a woman about to be killed by her husband, a crime syndicate importing Eastern European prostitutes, and the murder of the husband-and-wife team investigating the johns and thugs - all this before I've even reached the novel's midpoint. It didn't take long for my heart to start pumping like a piston. I was expecting this adrenaline high based on the reviews I'd read.
But what caught me off guard is the idiosyncratic, original characterization.
These characters have a complexity that gets under my skin. Our heroine, Lisbeth Salander - hacker extraordinaire, world traveller, bisexual Don Juan - is particularly fascinating because she is comprised of multiple contradictory "selves" that she dons with the insouciance of costumes. Indeed, her identity seems to be a mystery even to herself. Looking in the mirror and admiring her newly implanted breasts (bought with the fortune she acquired in a recent heist), she seems to regard her own features as no more real or natural than the artful tattoo on her back. There's something marvellous about how she's able to reinvent herself from moment to moment, conjuring an identity that suits any situation. A hitman attacks her? Her keys turn into brass knuckles. She needs to furnish her new apartment under an alias? She throws on a blond wig, grabs a Norwegian passport and heads to IKEA.
Ironically, her theatrics and adaptation skills stem from how she overcame the sadistic sexual abuse inflicted on her during childhood. While the details of Salander's past remain obscure, we know from the opening scene (presumably a flashback) that she "lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame" for more than 43 days, awaiting her captor's daily assault. Trapped in this horrific state, her calmness and clarity of mind are all the more striking. Although she is afraid, she isn't debilitated by fear, for with every passing second, she is channelling her fear into a plan for settling the score: "She had discovered that the most effective method of keeping fear at bay was to fantasize about something that gave her a feeling of strength. She closed her eyes and conjured up the smell of gasoline." The girl who plays with fire is born.
The abuse that could have easily paralyzed her for life has instead become a source of power and focus. I think this is why I find myself sympathizing and identifying with and above all liking this oddball heroine. Although an extreme case, she appeals to that universal desire in all of us to overcome our childhood traumas and humiliations, of whatever magnitude, and move on. Rather than letting her past control her, she has taken control of her past and transformed it into a new, creative identity.
(By the way, a few days ago I added a page called "What's Your List?" at the top of the blog. This is where you can post a list of your favourite books.)
Photo from: here