Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dutch Island Madness and Swedish Terror

Dutch Island Madness: The two books I have read recently have both been marrow chillers of the first order though set in completely different times and different locations. But the theme of both is a sadistic, power crazy person who commits horrifying acts of cruelty.

Greta Van der Rol's new book Die a Dry Death is one of those amazing stories that horrifies and at the same time forces you to read on and on. The story,set in 1629, arose from the real event of a Dutch ship, The Batavia, that ran aground on a reef, part of a group of tiny, uninhabitable islands off the western coast of Australia. When the ship foundered, the captain Adrian Jacobz, set sail in a small boat with a few of his sailors to get help. The remaining survivors, who included several women and children, were left on the islands while a substantial treasure and goods owned by the Dutch East Indies trading Co.remained on the foundered ship out on the reefs. From those who remained, a figure emerged who had hitherto been in the background, a clerical, quiet person who now took charge of the survivors. This soft-spoken, charming, cultured man now turned into a tyrant infinitely more cruel and dangerous than the sea and the reefs from which these hapless people thought they had escaped. Greta's imaginative portrayal of Cornelisz is brilliant. She shows how the desire to survive turns him into a monster and yet allows him moments of strange tenderness when in love. You feel almost sorry for him when his end is nigh. He has to my mind become The Dark Lover, the monster, who haunts so many women's books from Bronte to Mary Shelley.

DaDD is indeed a compelling tale and Greta has been fascinated by the story for twenty five years. Her writing skills are impeccable. One is drawn immediately into the scenario and carried on by the sheer power of her depiction, the characters she builds and the settings she creates. But it is an unrelentingly dark tale, so be warned, though a clever twist at the end helps to lift the story again and cheer the departing reader.

Swedish Terror: The second story I read after Die a Dry Death was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. A cold, Scandinavian atmosphere pervades this peculiar story set in Sweden (quite a contrast to my previous read set in the heat and dryness of the Australian islands.) TGwDT is a compelling, bang-up-to-date tale with real, flawed and interesting characters that one cares about. Lizbet Salander is a very modern heroine, brooding, surly, uncommunicative, angry and yet oddly tender and touching. Yet, despite her modernity, the tattoos, the rings in nose and lip, the punk hairstyles and clothes, she plays an ancient role and comes over as one of the vengeful Furies of Greek myth. She it is who really kicks ass, who turns the table deftly and brilliantly on those who offend her. She is, like any ancient goddess, in love with and protective of her hero.

But parts of the story bothered me, not because I'm sqeamish or insensate to the darkness of human nature, but bothered by the author's need to describe every horror in full, sickening detail. It left a sense like heavy meat, difficult to digest, lingering in one's mental stomach and at times quite sickening. Rape, incest, murder, animal cruelty and just about every other bestiality known to man is portrayed. Where does one go from there? These things obviously appeal as the books are now best sellers. Stieg Larsson is said to be making a point about the attitude of men to women (The original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women)the books are said to be a social indictment of our times. As if men's cruelty to women and the female desire for revenge was in any way new! It begs the question what sort of mind does the writer have that he or she can want to describe such horrors in detail? At the same time what sort of psyche do we all have that we wish to dive into such dark depths?

There comes a point when one must be satiated, deadened by it and will the tide then turn towards brighter, lighter, more uplifting works of fiction?

You need a strong stomach for both of these stories. But I feel they are worth reading for their power and brilliant characterisations.

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  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
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  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.