Danish heroes

Hephzibah Anderson reviews the latest paperbacks, among them Paul Carr's self-deprecating - and more than a little sarcastic - memoir of a media whore.
<i>The Quiet Girl</i> struggles to find its voice through the cacophony of ideas and images.
The Quiet Girl struggles to find its voice through the cacophony of ideas and images.

The Quiet Girl

Peter Høeg

Vintage Dh54

You know exactly where you are with a novel whose first page features a map. Or so you'd think. Peter Høeg's latest opens with not one but two maps, parachuting us into Copenhagen's city centre and the surrounding countryside. So far, so straightforward, but from here on in, Høeg sets about defamiliarising, snatching the map from beneath our feet and replacing it with a landscape in which people are tuned to musical keys, and a claustrophobic echo reverberates across the Danish capital. This is how life is experienced by the novel's eerily talented protagonist, Kasper Krone, a world-renowned clown who loves Bach - but not quite as much as he loves gambling. Kasper has a freakishly sharp sense of hearing, and is able to pick up on everything from a snoozing dog to the noise of a strained electricity supply. He can hear emotions. Kasper has lucratively parlayed his talent for analysing people's "acoustic essence" into a kind of therapy technique. When 10-year-old KlaraMaria, the quiet girl of the title, shows up for a session, she tells him that she has been kidnapped and pleads with him to find her mother. Before she is whisked away again by her abductors, she sneaks him a handful of fragmentary clues scrawled on the back of a receipt. Meanwhile, Kasper has problems of his own. His father is ailing, his gambling debts are crippling and his love life is a mess. Most pressingly, the Danish authorities are about to extradite him to Spain, where he is wanted on charges of tax evasion. A mysterious order of nuns has offered to broker a settlement for him, but only if he agrees to help them safeguard a group of children with special psychic gifts. Together, these kids can stop time and move buildings. Kidnapped KlaraMaria turns out to be one of them, and Kasper has to find her before their talents are put to nefarious ends. Along the way, he takes a bullet in the stomach, breaks a wrist and has his head cracked open. The novel includes adrenalin-pumped chases and seismic shifts - literally - but it is metaphysical action that most interests Høeg. In his world, God is "She Almighty", and even while referencing thinkers like Jung and Kierkegaard, he isn't shy about tossing in his own philosophical two cents: the book is laden with ruminations on love, loneliness and loyalty. It becomes exhaustingly opaque, a struggle through a thicket of ideas and images that seems to have grown only more tangled in Nadia Christensen's translation from the Danish. It's been a full 20 years since Høeg published Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, the magical realist thriller that made his name, and none of his other novels has come close to matching its sensational success. As every author knows, even a global bestseller doesn't buy scope for unlimited follow-up flops, and this new novel arrives after a decade-long silence. As Høeg notes early on here, "The true mark of talent is the ability to recognise when to give things up". For all its adventurous flights of fancy, The Quiet Girl is ultimately a disappointing book whose vibrantly mismatched parts never quite cohere. Too often, Hoeg gives us coincidence in lieu of plot, and quirkiness when we're craving solid characterisation.

Bringing Nothing to the Party: Confessions of a New Media Whore Paul Carr Weidenfeld & Nicolson Dh70

Tone is vital in a memoir, and Paul Carr's is declared loud and proud in his title: frank, self-deprecating and more than a little sarcastic. It's the relentless sarcasm that wears most as he spins his tale of dot-com boom and bust, of youthful ambition unchecked by experience, of parties where the free bar never runs dry. As a law student with no interest in law and an avid fascination with fame and fortune, Carr created a website that indexed and reviewed (sarcastically, of course) his favourite sites. The product was a kind of Yahoo! as it was back in the olden days of less than a decade ago. It led to a publishing contract, and after a little more digital toil won him some easy notoriety, he found himself writing a new media column for The Guardian newspaper. But, as a jaded 25-year-old, he soon tired of spectating - he had a new project of his own, and with a second internet boom imminent, he was determined to get in on the act. His story features unreal sums of money, some salutary heartache and a large number of irksomely ironic footnotes.

Beautiful Lies Lisa Unger Arrow Dh49

No good deed goes unpunished, they say, and that's certainly the experience of Ridley Jones. When the 30-something journalist plucks a toddler from the path of an oncoming vehicle one rainy Monday morning, a press photographer happens to be on the scene to capture her heroism. The pictures are briefly all over the local news, and Ridley finds herself hailed as "New Yorker of the Moment". Her 15 minutes of fame are long enough to attract the attention of a man who claims to be her father. As she pieces together childhood mysteries and stumbles upon a sinister operation to kidnap children from homes deemed unstable, it becomes apparent that her wannabe father isn't the only one on her trail. A rising body count and ever-thickening plot have her running for her life and trusting nobody - not even her new love interest, a brooding sculptor from a neighbouring apartment. "Sometimes it's the little things that tell the tale," Unger observes at the start of her slick-paced novel. She painstakingly documents those little things: the sudden flash of harshness in a person's eyes, or a change in the air that signifies danger. The love story sometimes threatens to smother the thriller, but suspense courses throughout.

Wounded Percival Everett Faber Dh54

Percival Everett is such a reliable author that his finely calibrated fictions arrive with less fanfare than they generally merit. Often hilarious and always thoughtful, his previous novels have counted among their protagonists a mute infant with an IQ nearing 500, an English Literature professor who is pilloried for not writing "black enough" and a man brought back from the dead. His latest tells the story of John Hunt, a Berkeley-educated horse trainer who lives with his uncle Gus in the Wyoming desert. John also happens to be black, and his acceptance in the local community begins to look vulnerable when the body of a young gay man turns up in a nearby canyon. Shortly afterwards, someone starts picking off cattle owned by John's Native American neighbour, daubing racist slurs in blood and causing John to fear that a group of rednecks is at work, trying to whip up intolerance. Though he tries not to get involved, the arrest of his ranch helper and the arrival of an old college friend's gay son make passivity impossible. Meanwhile, a chance of love presents itself, but John has spent so long on the sidelines of life that he struggles to budge to claim it.

Published: August 29, 2008 04:00 AM


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