By Carolyn Williams
Peter Høeg’s “The Quiet Girl” is billed as a new thriller to match the success of his 1992 novel “Smilla’s Sense of Snow.” However, where Smilla was a high caliber bestseller, “The Quiet Girl” has been met with a very mixed reception in Denmark, and the English translation by Nadia Christensen has failed to accrue the enthusiasm of its predecessor.
“The Quiet Girl” stars middle-aged clown Kasper Krone as a protagonist of sorts, whom Høeg gifts with the ability to hear peoples’ essences, making Kasper able to learn countless useful snippets of personal information and intrinsic qualities immediately upon “hearing” their unique sound. This interesting bit of magic realism aside, Kasper is also world-renowned for his illustrious circus career and simultaneously dealing with his father’s terminal illness, as well as being up to his neck in debt, a womanizer, and wanted in multiple countries for fraud. He also moonlights as a children’s therapist, capitalizing on his innate ability to hear into the souls of others, which apparently comes even more naturally with children. This is how he first meets the quiet girl of the title, a 10-year-old nymphet of whom Humbert Humbert would be proud, named KlaraMaria.
For some reason, KlaraMaria’s essential sound is quieter than anyone else Kasper has ever encountered. So when, after disappearing from his life for some time, KlaraMaria returns to Kasper in some definitely suspicious circumstances, he recognizes her immediately. And when she slips him a note which leads him to believe she has been kidnapped and abused, Kasper jumps quickly into action to rescue this precocious and obviously special child. Lying with terrifying ease and jetting around Copenhagen so quickly readers may well become nauseous, Kasper tries to follow KlaraMaria’s maddeningly faint trail, while also dodging police and members of the enigmatic “Department H,” which he has been warned to leave alone. Trying to connect the dots between KlaraMaria, his ex-lover Stina, some children with very questionable abilities and avoid incarceration, Kasper attempts to piece together this mystery and see how everything can possibly fit together.
One of the issues with “The Quiet Girl” is the convoluted plot and sporadic storytelling style employed by Høeg. Honestly, parts of the novel seem more like James Joyce than a modern thriller. Following the path of the characters is definitely a challenge, and reading it in translation may be a contributing factor. Christensen has clearly taken on a challenge in working with “The Quiet Girl,” but without knowing Danish or having a solid understanding of Copenhagen’s layout, the book loses much of its entertainment value. Considering its lukewarm reception at home, Høeg might have confused more than just his foreign readers. After virtually disappearing from the literary world for 10 years and producing several lesser novels, Høeg still fails to match his achievement in “Smilla’s Sense of Snow.” “The Quiet Girl,” though possibly misunderstood, is ultimately disappointing.