Title: Strindberg’s Star
Author: Jan Wallentin
Translator: Rachel Willson-Broyles
Published: First published October 2010 in Swedish; this edition to be published 24 May 2012
Publisher: Viking, an imprint of Penguin USA
Genre: thriller, adventure, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
I really loathe having to review books like this. It’s not because it’s bad – this is hardly one of the worst books I’ve read. But even when a book is bad I don’t normally have a problem describing it and explaining how I felt about it and why. Strindberg’s Star however, is both dull and complicated, making it hard to pay attention long enough to scrabble together the information for a decent plot summary, nevermind a thorough articulation of my feelings about the book. I’d like to just give you the short simple version of my review which is this: Strindberg’s Star sounds like a good thriller, but it’s really boring so don’t waste your time. I’m obliged to write a proper review though, so if you want to know more, read on.
Diver Erik Hall is exploring the depths of a flooded mine shaft when he discovers a dead body clutching an ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. He notifies the authorities about the body, and it instantly becomes a major news story. Everyone assumes it’s a recent murder, but it turns out that the body is far older than expected and has simply been very well preserved. Erik keeps the ankh a secret, but when all the media attention starts dying down, and he uses it as an attempt to get back into the papers. He tries to get Don Titelman, an expert in religious symbols and Nazi history, to take a look at the artefact.
Don isn’t interested, but when he eventually gives in and goes to see Erik he finds the man’s corpse cooling outside. A secret society was after the ankh, and one of their agents murdered Erik in an attempt to get it. The society ensures that Don is framed for Erik’s murder. During an interrogation at the German Embassy in Sweden, Don and his lawyer Eva Strand are told a remarkable story about the ankh and a corresponding artefact – a star (I just have to mention that I don’t know why the interrogator bothered telling them this very long and complex tale). Both artefacts were studied by the famed scientist and photographer, Nils Strindberg, who discovered that together, the star and ankh could work as a magical map to a shifting location at the North Pole. The treasure and knowledge that can be found at this location is highly sought after.
Don and Eva are inexplicably imprisoned in the German Embassy but manage to escape and go on the run. With nothing but a postcard as a clue to the mystery of the artefacts and the dead man in the mine, Don decides to try and learn more. However, he and Eva are being chased by both the law, and the secret society that had them framed. Now that the ankh has been discovered, the race is on to find its partner – Strindberg’s star – and then travel to the North Pole to see where the map leads.
The adventure is intertwined with history, Norse mythology, fantasy and Nazi secrets. It sounds a lot like a Dan-Brown style mystery-adventure, with its artefacts, secrets and a protagonist like Don. I’ve never read Dan Brown (and never will), but artefacts and conspiracies seem like good ingredients for an entertaining read. Not in this book. The characters are flat, the writing is clunky, and the story tends to be confusing and slow. There’s a lot of long, dense exposition – history lessons and character backgrounds. Some of these are actually interesting or at least easy to read, but with most will make your eyes glaze over. It’s the same with the story as a whole – a few interesting bits amidst many long, dull sections.
Don is pathetic protagonist. He should be great for this story, being an expert in mythology and the Nazis, as well as possessing photographic memory. He can offer endless bits of interesting trivia and find all the fascinating connections between the clues. And yet he’s a dud. You see, Don has some serious childhood trauma, thanks to a grandmother who used to tell him about all the horrific experiments conducted on her in the Nazi concentration camps. Thanks to his memory, Don never forgot a word. To cope, he became a drug addict. Having qualified as a doctor, he is able to prescribe medicines for himself, and he carries around a bag full of pills. He pretty much uses powerful prescription medication to constantly control his state of mind – if he wants to calm down, go to sleep, be more alert, etc. he takes a bunch of pills. He doesn’t even bother with water, he just chews them.
Unfortunately when he goes to Erik Hall’s house to check out the ankh, his mouth is dry with anxiety so he takes some anti-anxiety pills that he’s never tried before and washes them down with some wine he sees on a table. Thanks to this utterly moronic decision, his fingerprints are on the bottle, making it look like he was hanging out with the murder victim, and when the police get to the house they find Don in a drugged stupor kneeling next to the body. It’s hardly surprising that they arrest him, and it’s easy for him to be framed.
This is just the first occasion when Don is too drugged or sick to be of much use. Half the time he seems to be flopping around or falling over – it seems a miracle that he manages to get anything done. He’s in his forties, but most of the time I picture him as a sickly old man.
Then there’s Eva Strand, Don’s attorney and sidekick of sorts. She’s a stiff, formal woman with extremely pale skin and a preference for a 1940s style of clothing. I mention the latter, because at one point while they’re on the run, Don and Eva need to buy new clothes, since their own have been ruined. Don just gets the first decent suit he sees, but despite the fact that they need to keep a low profile, Eva insists on shopping around until she finds the specific type of clothing she’s looking for. Argh… There are some very odd things about Eva too – her excessively pale skin, a stiffness in her joints, and an ability to heal very quickly. Don notices all these things, but doesn’t make much of an effort to enquire about them, even Eva’s healing abilities. For the reader it’s clear that this is somehow important, so it’s annoying that Don is so obtuse.
Eva isn’t the only one with special abilities. The secret society has a beautiful young agent named Elena who seems unnaturally strong for her tiny frame. As a child she had paranormal powers that allowed her to “look into other people’s thoughts, see all their dreams and hopes in distorted, brilliantly coloured forms”. The book doesn’t really explain what this means in practical terms, but we do know that Elena’s powers have been a great advantage to the secret society, at least until they faded away in her teens.
The vague understanding I had of Elena’s powers characterised my understanding of most of the book. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but most of it seemed hazy, indistinct. Like watching a movie but walking in and out of the room all the time. I’ll admit that maybe I was just too bored to concentrate properly, but that in itself is a criticism. This isn’t supposed to be a literary masterpiece or groundbreaking philosophy – I shouldn’t have to work so hard.
Since it’s already a bestseller in Europe, I have to wonder if part of the problem is that it just doesn’t translate well, so that the consequently clunky language serves to dull the novel. So maybe give it a shot if you can read it in the original Swedish, or perhaps one of the other European languages it’s been translated into. But if you’re going to read it in English, give it a miss.
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