Sunday, May 27, 2012

His Family, by Ernest Poole

Until I downloaded a collection of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in e-book format, I'd never heard of Ernest Poole or His Family, the very first novel to win the prize in 1917. Critics have opined that his earlier novel, The Harbor, which promoted social and labour reforms, was the stronger book, but this one had plenty to say.

The narrator is Roger Gale, a New Hampshire boy who is now, in his late middle years, widowed and living in New York City. It's a rapidly changing city -- buildings are growing taller, horses are giving way to motorcars, and immigrants are pouring in from God only knows where.

I found Roger a deeply trustworthy narrator, because he willingly acknowledged his shifts of mood, his changes of opinion, his tendency to shift one way then the other as his three adult daughters express their own conflicting world views. He is not, however, a weak or indecisive man. He is often weary and craving some peace and quiet. Most of all, he is wonderfully reflective.

Each of Roger's three daughters reflects a different facet of the changing social mores. Edith, the eldest, is married with five children. She is deeply traditional, fiercely and maternally protective of her young. Deborah is a social activist, working in the schools that she has developed for the immigrants in New York's tenement communities. She is as passionate about her family of thousands as Edith is about her family of five. Laura, the youngest, is a beautiful, vivacious hedonist. She marries a rich young man who shares her opinion that having children will only impede their enjoyment of life. Although these three highly conflicting attitudes to womanhood confounded Roger, it occurs to me that we're still trying to come to terms with them today.

Roger invites Deborah, the social activist and educator, to join him for an evening at the opera, thinking it will alleviate her exhaustion. He sees her watching the stage with a feverish glow, and her comment makes him realise that it is impossible for her to separate her work from her life. Her work is her life.
"I was thinking of hungry people--millions of them, now, this minute--not only here but in so many places--concerts, movies, libraries. Hungry, oh, for everything--life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth--no matter how old they happen to be..."
I appreciate her comment and its inverse:  the loss of hunger for everything is the onset of old age, no matter how old we happen to be.

Roger has an intriguing hobby: He collects antique rings. Wedding rings, poison rings, rings with gems or inscriptions or filigree. Poole gives me the sense that the rings symbolise infinity and loyalty to Roger. After his youngest daughter's lavish wedding (which, Roger fears, will lead to no stable marriage), he reaches for his rings for solace. It's a lovely and subtle image.
Roger rose and walked the room. The comforting idea entered his mind that when the wedding was over he would take out his collection of rings and carefully polish every one.
As we age, we cope with change less gracefully. That seems to be a nearly universal trait, and people who grew up in the countryside occasionally look at city life -- no matter how much they love it -- and wonder at its insanity. Life never feels quite solid in a metropolis.
The taxis and motor trucks thundered and brayed, dark masses of people swept endlessly by, as though their very souls depended on their dinners or their jobs, their movies, roaring farces, thrills, their harum scarum dances, clothes. A plump little fool of a woman, her skirt so tight she could barely walk, tripped by on high-heeled slippers. That was it, he told himself, the whole city was high-heeled! No solid footing anywhere! And, good Lord, how they chattered!
This lovely little novel with its sympathetic characters puts us in the thick of so many universal human contradictions, as well as those specific to that place and time: Caring for one's own flesh-and-blood family vs. nurturing the global family. The struggles of a parent to love each of his children, accepting each child's unique strengths and foibles.  The impact of a World War, fought in Europe, on one family in New York. Learning not to despise new migrants because they are different and poor. Roger 'adopts' Johnny Geer, a young man crippled as a child when his drunken mother dropped him on his head, and their relationship proves one of the most gratifying in Roger's life. 

Not surprisingly, the novel closes with Roger's death, and on his way out, he recognises that it's not either/or -- he's been labouring under a false distinction. His family includes those who are related to him by blood and those who are not. I pray I can achieve this synthesis before I'm on my deathbed. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

God's Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell

God's Little Acre came out in 1933 and shortly thereafter landed its author in court on obscenity charges. Today, of course, the sexual content wouldn't scandalise a nun, but it's still a great little novel.  (The photo is a still from the film, made in 1958.)  It's absurd, steamy, tragic, funny and a vividly sharp photo of the 1930s south.

Ty Ty Walden is a poor, white farmer in Georgia. Well, he would be a farmer if he planted crops on his hundred acres, but he doesn't, because he's obsessed with digging for the gold he is certain lies beneath the ground. Somewhere, somewhere on his land, there are nuggets of gold, and he is consumed with the search for them. He's got his sons digging in the ground alongside him, and occasionally the black sharecroppers who work his land join in, too.

Ty Ty's son-in-law points out that years of digging pits on the land might more profitably have been spent planting crops. Ty Ty's obsession, however, is like that of the compulsive gambling addict:  the big win is worth risking everything, even the house.
“This house is going to topple over into the hole if you dig much more in it. The house is leaning a little now. It won’t take much to tip it over.” Ty Ty looked at the pine logs that had been dragged from the woods and propped against the building. The logs were large enough and strong enough to hold the house where it was, but if it were undermined too much, it would surely fall in, and then turn over. When it did that, it would either be lying on one side in the big hole, or else it would be upside down on the bottom of it.
Being a white southerner, Ty Ty makes clear that he is unlike the black men, who prospect for gold using 'conjur' and magic. He, he insists, is a man of science. So when Pluto Swint, the fat, sweating, ineffectual  candidate for sheriff, tells him that there is an albino living in a swamp nearby, Ty Ty immediately sets off with his sons to capture the poor fellow, because everyone knows that albinos have an uncanny knack of locating gold. His lovely daughter-in-law, Griselda, questions this decision, and in the characteristically repetitive speech that Caldwell uses to brilliant effect throughout the book, Ty Ty sets her straight.
“Now you be quiet, Griselda,” Ty Ty said angrily. “You know good and well I don’t take any stock in superstition and conjur and such things. We’re going about this thing scientifically, and no fooling around with conjur. It takes a man of science to strike a lode. You’ve never heard of darkies digging up many nuggets with all their smart talk about conjur. It just can’t be done. I’m running this business scientifically clear from the start. Now you be quiet, Griselda.”
Later, son-in-law Will Thompson, an out-of-work cotton mill worker, raises similar objections about Ty Ty's obsessive-compulsive digging. It is Will who points out that the house is tipping perilously, that the land might more profitably produce cotton or watermelon, and that the albino seems more interested in Ty Ty's libidinous daughter, Darling Jill, than in divining the location of the gold.
“You just haven’t got a scientific mind, Will,” Ty Ty said sadly. “That’s the whole trouble with your talk. Now, take me. I’m scientific clear through to the marrow, and I’ve always been, and I reckon I’ll be to the end. I don’t laugh and poke fun at scientific notions like you do.”
Darling Jill. Now there's a character. She's young, pretty, precocious and utterly nymphomaniac. Sweating, pleading Pluto Swint begs her to marry him, and Darling Jill strings him along all over the southern states. She throws herself at her brother-in-law, Will Thompson, when his wife (Darling Jill's sister) has gone out to fetch some groceries. She can't keep eyes nor hands off Dave Dawson, the captured albino. Her brothers tell Ty Ty that her behaviour is unseemly, but Ty Ty loves his Darling Jill and explains (again and again and again) that 'she just goes crazy sometimes, for no reason whatsoever.'

When I was young, my father would refer to steamy novels as 'bodice-rippers'.  There's no shortage of sex in God's Little Acre, but Caldwell gives us more than flesh. The young men in Ty Ty's universe -- sons and son-in-law -- are acutely driven by animal instinct and hormones. Bodices do get ripped, and blood does get shed (much to Ty Ty's repeated cries of dismay), because men will be men. Which is to say they can't very well be distinguished from dogs fighting over a bitch in heat.
Will disliked Buck. He had disliked him from the first. He did not hate him personally, but Griselda was Buck’s wife, and Buck was always standing between them. They had already had several tussles, not over Griselda any more than for any other reason, and they were likely to have others. As long as Griselda was married to Buck, and lived with him, Will would fight him whenever he had the opportunity.
When they're not scrapping over women, the men talk about the hard times. Will loved his work as a 'linthead' in the cotton mills over the border in South Carolina, but his mill has shut down because the men won't accept the paltry wages the owners are offering. Young pretty girls have taken the jobs in some mills -- always described in repetitive praise of their cornflower-blue eyes and upturned breasts -- only to come home and be beaten by their disheartened men. Will's mill, however, remains idle as the men wander the streets and mutter about turning the power back on. Taking the mill back under their own control. Working for their survival. Turning that power back on. Pluto Swint, badgered into driving up to the mill town by Ty Ty and Darling Jill, asks Will about the present state of unemployment.
“But some of the other mills in the Valley are running,” Pluto said. “We passed five or six lighted mills when we drove over from Augusta tonight. Maybe they’ll start this one again soon.”
“Like so much hell they will, at a dollar-ten. They are running the other mills because they starved the loom-weavers into going back to work. That was before the Red Cross started passing out sacks of flour. They had to go back to work and take a dollar-ten, or starve. But, by God, we don’t have to do it in Scottsville. As long as we can get a sack of flour once in a while we can hold out. And the State is giving out yeast now. Mix a cake of yeast in a glass of water and drink it, and you feel pretty good for a while. They started giving out yeast because everybody in the Valley has got pellagra these days from too much starving. The mill can’t get us back until they shorten the hours, or cut out the stretchout, or go back to the old pay. I’ll be damned if I work nine hours a day for a dollar-ten, when those rich sons-of-bitches who own the mill ride up and down the Valley in five thousand dollar automobiles.”
Caldwell makes the frustration and impotence of the unemployed mill workers palpable, with Will's repeated insistence that he'll turn the power back on sounding like a drum beat. On the night before the men do in fact take over the mill once again, Will at last has his way with Griselda, Buck's wife, and yes -- he shreds her cotton dress with his bare hands. He gives us a classic instance of bodice-ripping, but Caldwell never lets readers forget that Will is a cotton man. He notes the lint, the warp, the woof and the texture of the fabric as he gives vent not only to his lust for Griselda but his love for his work and his rage against the mill owners.

Ty Ty repeatedly expresses his admiration for the beauty of Griselda, his beauteous daughter-in-law, to anyone who will listen, invariably ending his paean by saying, 'Why, it just makes a man want to fall down on his hands and knees and lick something.'  Griselda, after being ravished by the doomed Will Thompson, tells Ty Ty that she finally understands what he had been saying. Buck -- Ty Ty's son and Griselda's husband -- had evidently never been inspired to fall down on his hands and knees and lick anything. 

These are the cloaked, restrained words of Caldwell's choice, and still prudish readers of the 1930s were appalled. What strikes me today is not that his prose is graphic --it isn't -- but that he presents one young woman who acts upon her own libido, another who expresses awe when she finally receives sexual gratification, and the difference between men who lust after women and who genuinely and fully love them. 

Oh, and the title?  Ty Ty is a Christian of sorts, and so he sets aside one acre of his hundred and promises the fruit of that acre to God. If he were planting crops, this would be a reasonably nominal offering. His fear, however, is that he will find that elusive lode of gold on God's Little Acre and will lose the bulk of his wealth to the church. So with each new excavation, Ty Ty moves the Acre to another spot on which he's not yet dug. He's a man of science, after all.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Every Day is Mother's Day, by Hilary Mantel

I was one of those readers who waxed ecstatic about Wolf Hall. The sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, came out a couple of weeks ago and in a burst of giddy enthusiasm, I downloaded a collection of all Hilary Mantel's e-books to date. I did this on the eve of Mother's Day, and so instead of diving into her most recent novel, I reached for her first -- Every Day is Mother's Day, published in 1985. It is not historical fiction. There is no Tudor anywhere in sight. It is contemporary, full of dark humour and pathos. It's an extraordinary debut novel. Mantel reminds me of David Mitchell if only that no matter what type of novel she attempts, she succeeds brilliantly. She never seems to put a foot wrong.

Evelyn Axon shares her suburban English home with her mentally disturbed daughter, Muriel, and a number of ghosts, including that of her late husband. She coexists happily with none of them. Further vexing her are the social workers who appear regularly to check on Muriel's well-being, ultimately insisting that she come to a day-care facility for some socialisation. Evelyn doesn't appreciate these strangers prying into her private business any more than she appreciates her next-door neighbour, Florence, dropping by with a gift at the holidays. Florence lives alone after putting her own mother into a home. Florence's brother, Colin, takes night courses on a variety of topics, not so much to learn as to get away from his wife and children. Colin faces a desperate moment of self-assessment when the teacher of his creative writing class asks the students to introduce themselves.
How we see ourselves, Colin thought in querulous alarm, how we see ourselves? I am a history teacher, a teacher of the benighted past to the benighted present, ill-recompensed for what I suffer and despairing of promotion. My feet are size eight and a half, and I belong to the generation of Angry Young Men, though I was never angry until it was too late, oh, very late, and even now I am only mildly irritated. I am not a vegetarian and contribute to no charities, on principle; I loathe beetroot, and the sexual revolution has passed me by. My taste in clothes is conservative but I get holes in my pockets and my small change falls through; I do not speak to my wife about this because she is an excellent mother and I am intimidated by her, also appalled by the paltry nature of this complaint or what might be construed by her as a complaint. The sort of writing I want to do is the sort that will force me to become a tax-exile.
Thoreau proclaimed, 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation', and although Colin may be a fairly ordinary member of the mass, Mantel paints him in vivid colours. Before the class is over, Colin has proclaimed his love for a fellow classmate, Isabel Field, a social worker who has, incidentally, just been assigned to Muriel Axon's case. Isabel is single, living at home with her elderly father. Her affair with Colin follows a bleakly predictable path.
“It’s so sordid,” she laughed. “It’s so properly sordid. Like a film.”
“I shall get a night from somewhere,” he said. “I’ll get some petrol in the car and we’ll go—drive up to Manchester, get a decent meal and find a hotel. I’ll come up with something. Just give me time.”
“Give me time,” she said mockingly. “That’s the anthem of the married man. Give me time while I make my excuses, give me time while I sort out my head. Just another week, just another decade, just till my wife understands. Be reasonable, give me time, just till my children grow up, give me time. And what do you suppose time will give to me?”
The day-to-day strain of her social services work and the inequalities of her affair with Colin begin to take their toll on Isabel. On one exceptionally foggy day, Isabel has a minor car accident, which only accentuates her sense that her life is on the skids. The chill fog seems to permeate her, physically manifesting her malaise.
At the end of this conversation the feeling of heavy unreality inside her skull was much increased. She waited a long time for a bus, and as it crept along in the still thickening fog her mind emptied of her problems and professional duties and became blank and grey. When she arrived at the office she found she couldn’t get warm. People said she Might Have ’Flu Coming On. She put her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. Her friend Jane said that they should go to the pub and get her a double Scotch and some cottage pie. All that, the Senior said glibly, the common cold, ’flu, hay-fever, it’s a form of suppressed weeping, you know.
Meanwhile, Evelyn Axon has withdrawn Muriel from the social services day-care centre, as Muriel has mysteriously turned up pregnant. If discovered, of course, the pregnancy will solicit even more social work intrusions, and she can't abide that thought. How on earth will they cope with it? Muriel is certainly unequipped to be a mother. Evelyn sits in her dusty shambles of a house and recalls the early days of her marriage and her own pregnancy. 
In the days after their marriage, the house had been very tidy. She had polished and swept all day. Clifford came and went. He went out to business. He was a handsome, taciturn man, a fastidious eater, a vegetarian. He shaved twice a day. She did not really know him well, not well at all. She had made an appointment with the doctor, an elderly and sallow man.
“Well, I suppose you know your condition,” he had said. “It is sufficiently evident.”
She had gathered her courage, clearing her throat softly. “How does this come about?” she asked.
The doctor had looked up at her. “My dear lady.” He chuckled without a semblance of humour. “My dear lady.”
She had told Clifford the same night. He was not pleased. But he said that no doubt the child could be trained to be not much inconvenience. After all, he had never imagined that he would be a dog-owner, but the Airedale was very well-behaved. Unfortunately, soon after Muriel was born, the Airedale chewed up a rug and Clifford took it away to the vet’s.
Colin dimly assumes that his wife, Sylvia, is content with their marriage, their children, and their home.
She put her hand against the radiator. It would soon be as warm as they could afford. She had always wanted a cosy house, low and cream, with plump flowered cushions; now she was as cosy as a fish under ice.
On Christmas morning, that most joyful day of the year, the children have gone at each other's throats over holiday gifts, and Colin lets slip his own marital frustrations.
Colin moved and took her by the arm. A corner of the vegetable rack caught him painfully on the shin. “This is what I stay for,” he said. “They’re your children, you wanted them. Can’t you manage better than this? Do you realise this is what I stay for?”
“Stay?” Sylvia gaped. “And where are you planning to go? What are you talking about? Who else in the name of God would want you?” Her mouth quivered, in disbelief, and suddenly tears plopped out of her pale blue eyes and ran down onto her housecoat, Christmas or no Christmas, the first in years.
As his affair with Isabel begins to show the strain, he sees that she is no longer the woman with whom he was first in love. Neither, of course, is Sylvia. Most appalling, there just doesn't seem to be a damned thing he can do about any of it.
Because it cannot be sustained, he thought. Last time they met, the strain was telling on her [Isabel]. These days she forgot things, lost her files, she jumped when she was spoken to. He saw her corroded spirit in her eyes, watched her twist her fingers together, frail, timid, flawed. She was not the woman she had been in September. He thought of Sylvia weeping in the kitchen, her face cruelly blotched. His marriage had not disappointed him; his grief was that it had turned out exactly as he had expected. The past can’t be changed, but you should be able to change the present. My present isn’t under my control, he thought, it doesn’t seem mine to dispose of.
Colin's sister (and Evelyn Axon's next-door neighbour), Florence, has never married and so has some very clear ideas about how marriages and households should be run. She's not a nagging woman; she genuinely means well, and her feelings are bruised when her gifts and suggestions miss the mark. Sylvia can't even pretend to be gracious. 
She was staring at Florence’s gift to her, twelve plain cream linen tablenapkins, requiring to be washed, starched, and ironed. “Blimey,” Sylvia said. “Real serviettes, Florence. I always have paper ones, you know, when there’s company, otherwise I don’t bother with any.”
“Ah well,” Florence conceded pleasantly. “Of course you’re not newly-weds now. When you are putting your household together these gay little informalities are excused you, but as we get older, and established, it is not always becoming to be casual.”
“Why didn’t you put a message in them?” Sylvia asked. “Just to make the point? A little motto, like you get in the crackers?”
Marriage and motherhood make for a trying existence, whether for a widowed spiritualist with a deranged and pregnant daughter or for 'normal' women like Sylvia. It's no cakewalk for the husbands or their lovers, either. These characters are a long way from the great drama of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn in temporal terms, but Hilary Mantel gives them equal stature in emotional scale. By all means read this novel. Maybe not on the eve of your wedding, but do read it.

Erratum:  I imprecisely called this Hilary Mantel's first novel. It was her first published novel, as I learned from this interview with her in the Guardian after she won her second Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

I've not read any of Dan Brown's fiction, being the trend-averse curmudgeon that I am. I know it's been wildly popular and involves a lot of Freemasons. As I was plowing my way through The Prague Cemetery, though, it occurred to me that Eco is probably Dan Brown for uppity academics. Or conversely, Brown might be Eco for Dummies. In the end, my enjoyment of The Prague Cemetery proved purely cerebral. Nothing about the book  pinged my emotions, and it felt a bit like an endurance exercise to finish it. One might well ask, who's the dummy?

Eco's anti-hero is Captain Simonini, who moves (alongside his split-personality alter-ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola) through the historical events of western Europe at the turn of the last century, bumping elbows with historical figures such as Garibaldi, Dumas, and Freud. Simonini is a forger, an opportunist, and an indiscriminate misanthrope. Loathing is his raison d'etre.
What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am.
Born in what is now northern Italy, he debates whether the Italians are more detestable than the neighbouring French. Just over the Alps, of course, are the Germans, for whom he claims a physiologically- and linguistically-based hatred.
I have known Germans, and even worked for them: the lowest conceivable level of humanity. A German produces on average twice the feces of a Frenchman. Hyperactivity of the bowel at the expense of the brain, which demonstrates their physiological inferiority... They think themselves profound because their language is vague —it does not have the clarity of French, and never says exactly what it should, so no German ever knows what he meant to say, and mistakes this uncertainty for depth. With Germans, as with women, you never get to the point.
Oh, yes, and he's also a pathological misogynist, recoiling from any contact with the opposite sex. This does not imply he's homosexual, as he hates gays even more than Germans. The Freemasons are an abomination, but no one is more in need of extermination, in Simonini's opinion, than the Jews. This serves him well, as anti-Semitism is coming into vogue just then. Some Jews are converting to Christianity, but Simonini suspects that there may still be some sinister pool of Jewishness lurking within the convert.
From my grandfather's stories I expected to meet someone with the profile of a vulture, with fleshy lips, the lower lip heavily protruding like a Negro's, deep-set watery eyes, eyelids less open than those of other races, wavy or curly hair, ears sticking out . . . Instead, the man I met had a monkish appearance, a fine gray beard and thick bushy eyebrows with those Mephistophelean tufts at each corner that I had seen among Russians and Poles. Religious conversion evidently transforms not just the soul but also facial appearances.
The French, the Germans, the Russians, the Italians -- with all their agents and double-agents -- have reasons to distrust each other, the Freemasons, and most especially the Jews, who may well have infiltrated the Freemasons and spy organisations. They all want Simonini to forge documents to justify their schemes and paranoias. Wouldn't you know it? Simonini forged the document leading to the arrest of Dreyfus when the French determine that the Jews are infiltrating their military.  

In terms of combating the Masons, the Church decides that the best weapon is a former Mason who returns to the True Faith, repenting of the devil worship he'd engaged in previously. He must repent, of course, by writing lurid stories of Masonic rites, but there will certainly be financial reward for doing so. Simonini asks the Bishop about his budget for such a project.
"How much can we give him for a clear conversion?"
"A sincere conversion ought to be made freely, ad majorem Dei gloriam.Having said that, we shouldn't be too fussy. But don't offer him more than fifty thousand francs. He'll say it's too little, so point out to him that first of all, he's saving his soul, which is priceless, and second, if he writes against the Masons he will enjoy the benefit of our distribution system, which means hundreds of thousands of copies."
It's amazing what one can achieve with statistics.
"All right," said Drumont, "they [Jews] are more resistant than we are to physical illness, but they are more susceptible to mental illness. Constant involvement in commercial dealings, speculation and scheming affects their nervous system. In Italy there is one lunatic for every three hundred and forty-eight Jews, and one for every seven hundred and seventy-eight Catholics.
Eco cleverly captures the mind-set of the early 20th century, when nationalism, chauvinism and pure hatred would bathe the European continent in blood.
National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that's abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don't love someone for your whole life — that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he's always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart."
Hatred does indeed warm the heart of the one who hates. While this book exudes erudition and literary cleverness, it does little to affect a reader's heart. I didn't love it or hate it. I did admire it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson

With the third volume of his only venture into the world of fiction, Stieg Larsson really hit his stride as a novelist. I don't necessarily gravitate toward books with 'riveting' or 'a gripping page-turner' on the back cover. (Actually, nearly everything I read nowadays is in electronic format, so there simply is no back cover, but you get the point.)  There I was, though, sitting up long past my normal bed-time and sneaking quick reads at the bus stop. This time round, Larsson braided three plot-lines, each complex enough to justify its own novel, with plenty of twists, and still managed to pull them together for a satisfying conclusion that wasn't overly tidy or trite. We are talking about Lisbeth Salander, after all, so nothing is likely to end in perfect tidiness.

For those of us who love poetic justice (and Lisbeth Salander), this book is delicious. At long last, the wrongs she has suffered at the hands of corrupt officials, a creepy psychiatrist, a perverted lawyer, and her deplorable blood relatives gets put right, either by the law, with thanks to a brilliant strategy by Blomquist's reluctant sister, or to Salander's own cunning.

This novel often gave me reason to think about trust. Lisbeth has reasons galore to trust no one, yet she realises that if she is to prevail in this situation, she must trust that a small group of individuals is working together on her behalf and in her best interests. She never trusts them blindly, and she never relinquishes total control of her fate, but she is forced to acknowledge that she cannot succeed on her own. I also admire the point that the judge made to her upon revoking her legal guardianship at long last:  If you are declared legally fit to be an adult member of a society, you have responsibilities.

Another character, a former policewoman now working as a private security guard, reveals why she changed careers. As a cop, she was always arriving at the scene of a crime. It was too late to do anything other than prosecute the perpetrator or beat the stuffing out of him, as she did when she finally snapped. She is happier working toward the prevention of crime, but she admits that she has a limited scope. She discusses her only reservation with the woman she is presently protecting.

“So now you know. I work for Armansky, and I come into the picture before a crime is committed.... I work with all kinds of things. Security assessments, bodyguard protection, surveillance, and so on. But the work often concerns people who have been threatened. I get on considerably better at Milton than on the force, although there’s a drawback.” 
“What’s that?”
“We are only there for clients who can pay.”
As with its two predecessors, this novel dashes any delusion that Sweden is a paradise of law, order, and transparent governance. Larsson gives us thuggish motorcycle gangs, wealthy industrialists preying on southeast Asian sweatshop labour, and secret government agencies acting without oversight or regulation. I'm sorry that Larsson died before writing more fiction, but I'm enormously thankful that he completed this trilogy.