polar reversals

Sarah Weinman rounds out her preview of promising debuts for 2010 with James Thompson’s Snow Angels:

Like other examples of the Scandinavian crime invasion, there’s a tortured cop (Inspector Vaara), a gruesome murder of a Somali immigrant acting as blunt metaphor for the erosion of society, and humdingers of plot twists that, in hindsight, play as they should.

But “Snow Angels” is memorable as much for the reverse expatriate subplot — Vaara’s pregnant American wife, Kate, is the outsider barely managing with the country’s never-ending darkness around Christmastime — as it is for the wonderfully lurid quality of both the prose and revelations behind the initial and later murders. Vaara cautions his wife that “what you perceive as silence, we perceive as solitude,” but it’s the mix of both that provides the necessary ingredients for this stark page-turner.

Kirsten Tranter of The Monthly, an Australian magazine, writes about “Stockholm Syndrome” – profiling the character of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and making an interesting comparison to Eli, the adolescent girl vampire in Let the Right One In. It’s quite a thoughtful analysis that raises some interesting issues.

Uncompromising, unsmiling, with the body of a teenage boy and the brain of a computer genius, Salander is the antithesis of every Swedish middle-class stereotype. The three books are peppered with references to her likeness to Pippi Longstocking: her superhuman strength, resourcefulness and cavalier attitude to social rules. It is always a sobering comparison, however, for Salander has little of Pippi’s joyful, playful spirit. . . .

Salander forcefully embodies the limitations of the benevolent Swedish state when it comes to taking care of its most vulnerable citizens, and it is through her that Larsson imagines the most appalling abuses of power by those in authority. It is somehow both pleasing and bracing to be reminded that while Sweden (the land of cheerful, sensible Ikea) is a world leader in gender equality, it has a much darker side: a history of Nazi sympathy and persistent far-right activism, political assassinations, violence against women (statistically higher in Sweden than in its Scandinavian neighbours) and sex trafficking.

Through Salander, Larsson channels his most cherished theme – misogyny – and offers us its avenging angel. . . . Swedish crime fiction is known chiefly for depressive male investigators such as Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, but feral Swedish girls are definitely hot right now. Eli, the vampire at the centre of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In (2004; better known here in its unsettling, beguilingly beautiful movie version) is another Salander-like figure. Socially alienated and ultraviolent when necessary, Eli and Salander – childlike, unemotional, taciturn – are seductive in entirely unconventional ways. . . .

The sexual politics of Larsson’s stories are complicated by the fact that Salander’s admirable strength as an avenger is predicated on her own horrific victimisation; she has to be raped and abused before the story of her revenge can be set in motion. This is the conundrum Larsson has confronted: how might it be possible to condemn men’s hatred of women without telling stories that illustrate it? And how might different kinds of writing – journalism, history, fiction – answer that question? His hero is a journalist, but the success of Larsson’s novels proves the role that imaginative literature – even in the little-esteemed genre of crime fiction – has to play in generating critical debate about the most serious social and political issues.

One thought on “polar reversals

  1. I did not know that Sweden has a higher rate of abuse of women than other Scandinavian countries, but I see it in so many Swedish mysteries.

    Yes, good question: How can the violence against women be explained without showing it in its most gruesome, misogynistic form? I have to skip some pages or paragraphs in Larsson’s books. There’s just so much violence against women that I can stomach reading about.

    But I see it in other Swedish authors’ books. For instance, I am reading some Sjowall & Wahloo books.
    These were written 3-4 decades ago. And I was astounded at the sexism–actually, misogynism–in the books. Were they the authors’ views? I doubt it, considering one is a woman. And they were/are progressive-minded individuals.

    Didn’t the women’s movement hit Sweden? Things must have changed considering the women writers who write about women police inspectors and attorneys (Helene Turston and Asa Larsson), although the violence against the main character in this Larsson’s books made me swear never to read another one or wonder how this character could keep going without severe PTSD.
    But there is so much sexism, one character after another with comments. I almost threw, “The Locked Room,” across the room when I read a few racist and misogynist pages, but I kept going and it was an interesting plot so I kept going. I loaned it to friends and apologized for those pages.

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