Before I read “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” I didn’t really get the appeal of superheroes. A man who can leap from buildings just because he’s bitten by a spider? Well, such a thing doesn’t exist! A man whose entire family is killed but leaves him enough money to build the most fantastic machines to do well in the world? Come on, everyone knows exactly how much “good in the world” spoilt rich heirs do. A tiny, tattooed, anti-social girl who fights two huge, armed bodybuilders on motorcycles, and wins? A girl who didn’t pass high school and is the topmost hacker in Sweden?
Yes, Lisbeth, I believe in you!!
How did Larsson manage to create such a convincing scenario out of such an unlikely cast? Lisbeth is described as having a slim build, is barely five feet, and a doll-like appearance. And yet she wins a fight against a fully grown muscular man more than six feet in height and whose punches are like fists of iron.
First of all, Larsson gives her a background with enough motives to fight anyone. Lisbeth Salander had an abusive childhood, overlooked by everyone from her family to doctors to the entire government. She’s been committed to medical care for no reason, has been abused by doctors, and has her life taken away from her by being declared legally incompetent. The same legal system places her with a pathologically sick man who has no qualms about raping her. Throughout the book, she’s raped several times. That gives her enough cynicism to carry a hammer, a taser, and a can of tear spray with her wherever she goes. And enough courage to use all of these, and a gun, when she feels threatened. And enough clarity not to feel bad about injuring any creeps.
And after knowing her story, and when you find her crawling out of a grave where she’s been buried alive after being shot at three places, you cheer for her. At this point, you don’t even need to suspend your disbelief because you never doubted her mettle.
I guess this is how superheroes work. They need to have a persona that everyman can relate to, sympathize with, and believe in. In the world of male superheroes, there are few caped crusaders that women can identify with. Sure, Batman is handsome and Spiderman is cute, but what they are fighting is always a distant evil of galactic proportions. I was never more than mildly amused by their stories.
And then here comes Lisbeth Salander who fights everything that a woman fights everyday: Harassment, abuse, rape, neglect. You bet this is the story of women everywhere.
I know that the story is highly improbable, that for a girl of her size to win physical fights with bigger men is nothing more than wishful thinking, even in a well choreographed fight in a book.
And yet, I find myself rooting for her, because I want her to win this fight. Just like the countless men I’ve seen rooting for Superman and laughed at. I finally understand the glazed look in their eyes.
Finally, having a plausible female super heroine on the scene (after the fiasco of the highly sexualized Wonder Woman) is a matter worth rejoicing. Lisbeth Salander is an icon, with her extremely moral principles, her independence, and her determination in solving her problems. Finally, here is a female icon whom girls can look up to and model themselves on.
And yet, having a super heroine, this violent story has other consequences, too. Lisbeth Salander doesn’t hesitate to use violence when she deems fit, and her actions are accountable only to herself. Translate that to real life, and anyone who idolizes Lisbeth Salander can be tempted to use violence when she sees fit, without any accountability to anyone.
Besides, Lisbeth Salander has other personality issues as well that defy emulation. For example, men have always tried to emulate superheroes’ philosophy, relationships and even body language. However, the male superheroes don’t give women any guidance on these things, and nor does Lisbeth Salander, either.
Despite its glorification of violence, The Girl Who Played with Fire is a very engaging book. Steig Larsson has the habit of starting with one thing and later turning the story in a completely different direction. His first book threatened to be a financial thriller, but turned into a serial killer mystery. His second book starts out with the story of a journalist working to uncover a prostitution ring, and turns into a mystery of three murders, and finally ends with the history of the lead character.
There are parts in the middle where the story doesn’t move forward at all, when the characters just discuss the recent events again and again without adding anything. However, the denouement is very satisfying, and delivers an emotional punch by revealing the troubled history of its elusive leading character.
Overall, the composition of the story is very good. Overall, too, the book is notable for a sensitive portrayal of women’s issues that are rarely seen in a male writer’s creation. Without any condescension or patronization, Larsson portrays the abuses that shaped Lisbeth’s character, the problems that the female policewoman Sonja Modig faces from her alpha male colleagues, and the helplessness of women and girls forced into prostitution.
But instead of telling us what these problems are, Larsson shows us these problems by weaving them skillfully into the story. Overall, again, it’s a book that gains all-round marks on subject matter as well as skillful presentation. A good reading that feels as racy as a tabloid newspaper but hits very deeply.