The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg
Before cracking open Peter Høeg’s new thriller, The Quiet Girl, you might consider this incomplete list of preparatory materials, to make the reading a bit easier:
- the complete audio recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach, which, as collected in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis [Bach Works Catalogue], amount to some 1,100-plus cantatas, canons, fugues and chorales;
- a comprehensive book on music theory;
- a detailed street map of Copenhagen;
- a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device;
- a guide to the Danish tax system;
- a working knowledge of poker;
- a thorough understanding of gambling addiction, which can be acquired through sitting in on a few Gamblers Anonymous meetings;
- a Ouija board;
- an picture book of nun orders of the world;
- a familiarity with clown performances, ranging from slapstick to the highly stylized;
- a hearing aid (or better yet a bionic ear, if you can afford one);
- and a bottle of extra-strength ibuprofen.
The last item -- that pill bottle -- might be the most important on the list. Because right after you pore through all your course materials and just before you start reading, you should toss back roughly 2400 mg to make sure you don’t come away with a pounding headache from banging your head against a nearly impenetrable book. Or, if you’re the masochistic sort, you can take another tack: you can dive right in and welcome the pummeling. But just remember -- you’ve been forewarned.
No matter which course you chart through The Quiet Girl, this is the story you’ll more or less encounter:
After years of being a highly sought after clown, Kaspar Krone finds himself, uneasily, unalterably, down on his luck. Maybe it’s the gambling debts he’s racked up that are slowing down the step of his size-17 shoes. That, and the Danish officials who are on to him for evading taxes. His girlfriend is of no use in these lean times. And dad? He’s in a state of denial, refusing to believe that his life’s end is nigh, even as everyone around him prepares for his demise.
Luckily, Kaspar has a secret gift: he can hear anything that comes within blocks of his vicinity. Not only can he hear things, but his auditory gift manifests in a peculiar way: everyone, practically everything, announces itself in a musical key, from A-minor to G-flat. Yet the only person he can’t hear is KlaraMaria, a young girl who shows up one day, with two adults -- her parents? -- who might have assaulted her. But just as quickly as she materializes, she disappears, and Kaspar, with the tax officials right on his clown heels, risks all manner of danger to find her. Along the way, he falls in league with a secret order of nuns. They offer him safe haven from those seeking to extradite him to Spain, in return for his helping to protect a group of children who all possess mysterious powers, ones on par with Krone’s super-auditory skills. But can the nuns be trusted? Can KlaraMaria? Can anyone? What’s a washed up clown to do?
Suffer, that’s what. And in literature, there’s nothing like a suffering protagonist. Library shelves are spilling over with heroes (hell, even anti-heroes) who rail against the forces out to do them in. Which should spell good news for Høeg. But somehow, it doesn’t. What gives?
The writing, which is too dense, is burdened by too much information. Nearly every place Kaspar visits, we get the street address to: Skudehavn Road, Charlottenlund Fort and -- perhaps the best street name anywhere -- Middelfart Street. On top of that, there are endless musings on Bach (and Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart) and the sharps and flats hidden in every possible sound.
What Høeg is trying to do, by the piling on of so much specificity, is create a sense of place, of character. What happens is that the layering leaves you feeling downright fatigued. What if you’ve never been to Copenhagen? How are you supposed to know where Skude Harbor is? What happens if you can’t tell a fugue from a canon, or minor chord from major? Or Catholicism from Presbyterianism? What then? You try to keep reading, through dialogue such as this: “‘There are about forty or fifty orders of nuns in Denmark. The Cistercians at Sostrup Castle. Clarissa Convent in Randers and Odense. The Benedictine Order’s Leoba sisters in Frederiksberg and Ordrup. Carmelites in Hillerød. Les Beatitudes in Brønderslev and Århus…’” And on and on…
Or this passage: “It was a fax, signed with unreadable Gothic script and marked BERLIN and EUROPäISCHES MEDITERRANISCHES SEISMOGRAPHISCHES ZENTRUM. He wished he knew more German; he was barely able to understand Bach’s cantata texts, and even that just barely.”
Hear, hear. It’s that lack of comprehending half of what’s written that just about drains all the thrill out The Quiet Girl. A hint to what could have helped is offered right there in the title, in all its adjectival form: quiet. That poor Kaspar, that troubled KlaraMaria: if their stories, their joined plights, could have been pulled out of the riot of so much highbrow intellectualism, then this novel would sing. Instead, you want nothing more than to clear your head when it’s all over. And enjoy the peace and quiet.
The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg,
Translated by Nadia Christensen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux