A former circus clown’s efforts to save endangered children is the unusual premise of the bestselling Danish author’s labyrinthine fifth novel (Tales of the Night, 1998, etc.).
The carefully layered narrative, reminiscent of both Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Borderliners, unfolds through the experiences, intuitions and memories of Kasper Krone, in his early 40s and retired from the circus. Kasper is gifted (cursed?) with “absolute hearing”: the ability to sense and comprehend other people through the distinctive sound waves they emit. He’s also a passionate devotee of classical music (especially Bach) and a former gambler and tax-evader whom the Danish government threatens to deport. Then a convent well-connected to secular government activities offers Kasper a way out of his dilemma. Agreeing to safeguard a group of children who possess paranormal powers akin to his own, he’s whirled into a maelstrom of intrigue involving strategies to reverse the recent pattern of devastating floods caused by earthquakes, the disappearance (and likely kidnapping) of a strangely prescient preadolescent girl, KlaraMaria, and evidence of exploitation of children that may include sexual abuse and is perhaps condoned by the Church (represented by the figure of an enigmatic abbess, the Blue Lady). All this is formidably complicated, and made even more baffling by oddly juxtaposed past and present scenes and by Høeg’s habit of jump-cutting to the middle of a scene, which he subsequently presents in full. The novel is portentous, clogged with discursive detail (much of which is genuinely interesting) and—particularly in the unconvincing climactic action—rather cloyingly sentimental. But the real mystery is absorbing, and Høeg generates great intensity by developing his characters through their interactions and confrontations. Kasper is fascinating, as are his moribund father (and collaborator) Maximilian, several spirited women (including Kasper’s former lover Stina) and, of course, the elusive “quiet girl” KlaraMaria.
Overwritten and murky, but there’s life in it—will appeal most to fans of Smilla’s Sense of Snow.