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The 'Quiet' Man


FICTION | 'Smilla's Sense of Snow' author returns with a thrilling, frustrating story of one clown's existence

It is a puzzle of a book that both frustrates and thrills while taking the reader on a philosophical journey through one man's existence. Hoeg makes the reader work -- you'll go back over as many pages a second time as you go forward trying to establish the why and wherefore of the non-linear plot. Helpful advice: don't try to overanalyze it; just go along for the ride.

The setting is a bleak, industrial Copenhagen, a city reeling from unexplained earthquakes and floods. Hoeg's protagonist, Kasper Krone, is a world-renowned circus clown and gambler with a penchant for the music of Bach. It is the massive unlucky debt from the gambling that has him in hot water with the governments of Denmark and Spain, where he is about to be extradited.

But there also is another side to Kasper -- his ability to "access people's acoustic essence." With his supernatural sense of hearing, he can sense a person's shifting moods and inner spirit. This ability has helped Kasper with a second career -- reading the aura of troubled children. It is in one such encounter that he meets KlaraMaria, a young girl with a similar ability who will inevitably change his life. Perhaps for the better.

Sometimes preposterous but always slyly compelling, the story unfolds at breakneck speed over a few days as Kasper, on the run from the Danish authorities, hooks up with a group of unconventional nuns who are protecting a group of special children, one of whom is KlaraMaria. When the young girl disappears, he is drawn into a series of increasingly violent confrontations in an attempt to rescue her from a villain named Kain. A land developer with a vast corporate empire, Kain is bent on using the girl's powers for his gain.

As the story confusingly shifts back and forth in time, Hoeg creates a surreal world filled with peculiar touches of magic realism. At the other end of the spectrum, the over-the-top story also resembles a Hollywood action blockbuster. There are scenes here that feel they've been written directly for the big screen. (Bruce Willis as Kasper, anyone?)

There is plenty of gunplay as Kasper confronts Kain and his henchmen, who beat him within an inch of his life. But undeterred a now wheelchair-bound Kasper, with help from his dying father Maximilian, his reluctant former girlfriend Stina, a legless circus stuntman and a black nun with a black belt in aikido, descends into the underbelly of Copenhagen's sewer system and into Kain's headquarters for a final confrontation.

Self-destructive Kasper is erudite, charming and often very funny; it's hard not to like him. Between the philosophical ramblings are scenes of pure comedy. The one in which Kasper, accompanied by a young boy (one of the gifted), talks his way into a high-security building is comic genius.

Hoeg's constant references to Kasper's sensitive aural readings, his ethereal references to the wonders of Bach and his connection to a God he refers to as "SheAlmighty" become, after awhile, ponderous and repetitive. We get it.

More interesting are Kasper's relationships with women, which become a disturbing through line in his life. From his dead mother, to Stina, to the nuns and little KlaraMaria, he is adrift in a sea of emotions that he has difficulty sorting out.

At one point Stina tells Kasper: "Your feelings have no depth. You run, Kasper. You run away. One day it will catch up with you. The depth, I mean. Those declarations of love. You live and talk as if you're performing in the ring all the time."

In the end, The Quiet Girl seems like two different novels -- one a philosophical treatise, the other an adrenaline-laced thriller -- that don't easily meet on common ground. It is a story wrapped in enigmas that build to a screeching pitch and leave you dizzy and stunned. But it's the melancholy wit of Hoeg's writing that keeps you engaged, and hoping Kasper finally does comes to terms with his place in the world.

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times features reporter.


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