Book Club Reviews: Months 2 & 3…

December 25, 2009

In my complete neglect of this blog for the past six months, I have forgotten to give any record of my thoughts on two book club picks long since read. These are the epistolary Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter and (my own choice) the murder mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo written by J. Nozipo Maraire and Steig Larsson, respectively. Apologies to any who have been dying to read this amateur’s thoughts on two largely followed published works.

First, my thoughts on Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter:

Any book fascinates me when it can successfully narrate a story via the epistolary mode. As a particularly restrictive structure that relates the novel’s events through letters, epistolary too often collapses under the intrusion of outside points of view included by the narrator. But when done successfully, there is a direct connection between the reader and the storyteller. Rather than the “spiritual” distance of an omniscient narrator, the document-based storyteller creates an alternative space where the reader is an active part of the text. There is certainly something highly attractive about being directly addressed by a narrator, as though we are the non-present “you”/protagonist. It catches your ear. This mysterious (inborn) “you” owns the experience applied to us.

This fascination I have with the structure should not be taken as a seal of approval for Zenzele, though. While I can appreciate the difficulty in fulfilling such a task, J. Nozipo Maraire deprives the reader of that emotional connection inherent in the structure, driving to alienate the “you” being addressed with unveiled maxims and continually slapping on the moral lessons one after the other. The story is not really a story, which poses the novel’s main issue. Written by a mother to her daughter, the novel is a series of short tales told to illustrate and encourage pride in African & Zimbabwean heritage. In essence, the text is one giant sales pitch urging her university-bound child to return to Africa after her education and assist their own. Do not become an adopted westerner, it seems to say, and reject your life here.

We become her child and hear the experiences and stories the mother tells, as the letter is written to us. And the stories are each a treat. We learn more about African culture through them (or at least what the author wants us to think). The man who abandons his family, marries a white woman, and refuses to speak in his “forgotten” African tongue is a particularly moving one. But with so many individual tales told through one character through letters, the distance grows and the story betrays its point. We separate ourselves from the pleading mother, whose own stories, fleshed out, would have been sufficient for this novel. While there is certainly value in the lesson of the story, it is so heavily painted there is little to distinguish true African culture and desperation of a family to prevent the loss of its daughter.

There are moments of joy in Zenzele, but they do not occur in the final two chapters. The novel will leave you unsatisfied and feeling used by the final lines. We become more than the daughter. We are a billboard to post upon, a twitter page to spread the word, and nothing more.

Now my thoughts on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

I have to begin by admitting something to you: I LOVE MURDER MYSTERIES (possibly too much). And so, as this is my own choice for Book Club, I had doubly high expectations for it. It had to entertain me, but it also had the task of introducing mystery-haters to the genre. With quite a sizable reputation recommending the work (hence the tagline “The International Best-Selling Novel) and the curiousness that is posthumous publication, I was quite ready to take on what Publishers Weekly called a “strikingly original thriller.”

And, departing from the New York Times Review, I really quite enjoyed this particular mystery.

If you decide to venture into this 400+ pager, be aware that it will take you at least 80 pages to discover who the protagonist is and which issue is being explored. This is both the cost and benefit of doubly encased stories that function nearly independently of one another. The story, as it has developed 80 pages in, becomes this: a recently discredited financial journalist accepts a job from an incredibly wealthy octogenarian to look into what he believes to be the disappearance/murder of his niece more than 30 years prior. It takes on the best dramatic elements that only a rich, broken family can provide.

The frame story is hardly relevant aside from inciting the action. Only at the abrupt conclusion of the mystery do you thank the heavens that the frame story is still left to be resolved. I know this aspect of the novel is often critiqued and rightfully so. The plot becomes entirely outrageous, involving disguises, money transfers, and obligatory CCTV and press coverage. But it ties everything together happily enough, and I relished a bit more of these characters sans murder theories.

The mystery itself has all the requisite thrill required of such a novel. Episodes concerning a dead cat, a trip to a secret cabin, and BDSM dungeon are particularly frightening, perfect for a fire side evening read when you need a little excitement. The characters all play their part well enough, resembling their counterparts in movies like “Clue” and “Gosford Park,” but may be a bit too stiff and archetypal. I accepted it: it’s a stylistic trope, I believe.

Back to the rest… After pouring a good 5 minutes into figuring out who’s who, I easily slid into the Swedish world of Dragon. Apart from notions of gorgeous blondes and a fish-heavy diet, I knew very little about the setting of this story prior to my reading. And I am not surprised to find that there was a significant backlash to what Larsson has written about his native land. Originally titled Men Who Hate Women, the novel portrays a darker (brunette?) Sweden, housing sexual deviants, incestuous and pedophilic men, along with your run of the mill slum lords, drug addicts, and voyeurs. And considering that most of the novel takes place in a secluded and tiny town covered with mounds of snow, that description of Sweden becomes particularly rank.

The main character, Michael, is immediately likable to both the reader and the other characters in the story. However, there is such little development over the course of the novel that one wonders if he really is just an oversexed egotist bent on belittling bigger, wealthier men. Still, his woodenness makes comprehending the mystery a priority: we skip out on his emotional needs in lieu of some racy family secrets.

His partner in crime, Lisbeth, who is the titular girl, is his emotional opposite. You can smell the sexual tension in the air already, can’t you? And, indeed, she is very unlikable at the opening of the novel. Yes, she has had a mysterious and devastating past, but we don’t care. It is the way she changes throughout the book that hooks us in to the good guys side of the mystery. Her development from unstable, absolutely independent sadist moves into one we can all understand, that of someone getting more attached than comfort allows to another solo-minded person. Those final scenes irk me, but I love them at the same time when her character accepts and is rejected by what she becomes.

I think there are much worse ways to spend a day or two than with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I would recommend it to anyone seeking out a great mystery.

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