I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Every book starts off as a 5-star read. Some keep all their stars, and others lose them as they go. Such was the case with Jan Wallentin's Strindberg's Star. As I neared the end of this overly-long book, I realized that I was doing all kinds of rationalizing to try to give it that 3rd star--because there were elements of this novel that worked--but rather than redeem a flawed debut, the ending damned it.
The novel opens strongly--with a lone diver deep in a flooded Swedish mineshaft making a gruesome discovery. Erik Hall has found a body. It's remarkably well-preserved, but there are anomalies indicating that it may have remained hidden for a long, long time. Furthermore, there is some fairly incendiary writing on the walls by where the body was found.
Hall's discovery, of course, prompts a media frenzy, an outcome that seems to distress the diver not at all. For once his 15 minutes is up, he starts doling out additional "secret" discoveries from the mineshaft, including some astonishingly out-of-place artifacts. It is during the press coverage that Hall meets Don Titelman, the novel's true protagonist. Titelman is a historian specializing in Nazi symbolism, a discipline he switched to after failing at medicine, in an attempt to exorcize some very personal family demons. Why he was the expert called upon by this particular chat show is never fully explained, but the intersection of these two characters proves to be significant. The other main catalyst of the story is Titelman's being accused of a crime he did not commit, and going on the run with his extraordinarily trusting and loyal court-appointed attorney--a woman who appears to have some secrets of her own. There is so, so much more to this tale, but for now I think I'll leave it at that.
Reading over what I've written, I don't mind telling you, I want to read this book. Right? It sounds awesome! And parts of it were awesome and inventive. Unfortunately, this debut novel also had big problems. Possibly, the single biggest problem is that there wasn't one likeable character in the book. Hall starts out as a little odd, and rapid devolves to a state of pure repugnance. He certainly uses the "c" word more than any literary character in recent memory. As for Titelman, the novel opens, "His face had really withered. And despite the makeup artist's tinkering, nothing could hide that fact. Yet she had still made an effort: fifteen minutes with sponge, brush, and peach-colored mineral powder. Now, as she replaced his aviator glasses, there was a sickly shine over his grayish cheeks." Imagine my surprise, halfway through the novel, at discovering this guy is only 43! (My freakin' age!) It must be all the drugs. Don suffers from too many anxieties and/or mental disorders to name, and he clearly believes in better living through chemistry. He carries with him at all times, and pops constantly, a dizzying (literally) array of prescription drugs and narcotics. Oh, and he drinks to excess, too. Yep, this guy is a real chick magnet. None of the other characters are much more appealing, which makes it pretty hard to root for any of them.
On the subject of characters, the author has a little idiosyncrasy. He likes to label them. They're not so much individuals as they are: the diver, the intern, the weasel, the lawyer, the mustache and so forth. It's somewhat amazing the extent to which he does this.
My next big criticism: time and time again, the author resorts to contrivances or convenient plotting. Need untraceable international transport, an expert hacker, a photographic memory, extraordinary physical abilities, a helicopter pilot? Whatever is needed magically appears.
Another problem is how to categorize this book. That's not a big problem, but it starts out as a sort of science/adventure thriller, but then it gets all paranormal--which is just not my thing, and not necessarily the fault of the author--but despite the many, many, many revelations in the novel's lengthy dénouement, the story just didn't hold together for me. Many questions are answered, but I felt like the characters were asking the wrong questions. You have these extraordinary artifacts, and you're tracing their history, but never really inquiring as to their origins?
But by the time I finally came to the novel's end, after nearly 500 pages, I'd just had it. I didn't like these characters. I didn't care if they lived, died, or got what they wanted. Half the time, I didn't understand or believe their motivations anyway. Oh, and did I mention the excessive use of foreign languages? I love Yiddish, but enough is enough already! I was just ready for this book to be over.
That's pretty harsh, coming from me, and I hate to write it. There were elements of this novel that were quite interesting. I think there was real potential here. Sometimes I wonder what might be lost in translation--not like that translator did a bad job, but maybe that if I had a better grasp of Scandinavian culture I'd understand... something... better? Because Jan Wallentin is writing the type of novel that I tend to enjoy. This one was a miss, and I won't be rushing to read the next, but maybe once he has a few novels under his belt I'll check in again.