Grade: Ψ — (Psi) A very good to fantastic book that breaks rules and/or has a setting or style that is markedly different to those of its set genre. This means it is less likely to appeal to individuals who are fans of a given genre than those who do not normally read it. Additionally, it makes one think of larger scale issues, and/or has a style or literary content that should influence future publications.
Strindberg‘s Star by Jan Wallentin, is a paranormal mystery/thriller that weaves August Strindberg, 19th century pseudo science, secret societies, NAZI mysticism and a quest for the occult into a fascinating story. A translation, some elements of its style may put out the less avid reader, but for me, the more thematic and symbolic elements of the book more than make up for the occasional tendency to be pulled from the story.
While the bulk of the story occurs in modern day Europe, there are important elements to this book that occur within the Arctic, and within the late 19th to middle-20th centuries.
Okay, I admit it. At this rate I’ll have the whole Greek Alphabet in my grading system. Strindberg’s Star, however, really was problematic in classifying. It was not an Omega, but I do think that most individuals who sit down to read it should be aware that it does not easily sit in either the paranormal or the mystery categories.
The plot, in short, begins when an amateur (and totally foul) cave diver finds a remarkably well preserved body down in an ancient flooded mine shaft. Set about these remains are chalk scribbles that refer to the Norse Underworld, and clutched in the corpse’s hands are a few strange objects whose nature does not match either the surroundings nor the chalk markings. Afterwards, just when it all is starting to look like a hoax, there is a murder that draws a local expert in occult symbolism (Don Titelman) into the heart of a conspiracy whose tendrils link the murder to NAZI spiritualism and the quasi-science of the end of the 19th Century. Soon our hero is running for his life as powerful men and secret societies clash over what was found in the flooded caves.
Despite the action-adventure description I just produced, the pacing of this book is slow and steady, which in this case is a good thing. The book builds tension and nicely sustains the suspension of disbelief as the book slowly transforms from a mystery tied to the occult into a paranormal conspiracy thriller.
To this end, Strindberg’s Star has elements that would appeal to Dan Brown fans: real history (such as tying August Strindberg’s strange experiments into the paranormal), ancient symbols and convoluted conspiracies are the lifesblood of this work. Unlike Brown, however, Wallentin does a brilliant job of weaving together historic events with occult fiction in a manner that makes the reader wonder where novel begins and history ends. Yet, there are problems with this text that stop it from becoming an Omega grade novel.
Strindberg’s Star is wonderfully translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, whose skills take the language of the author and allow it to flow within English. Having said that, different literary traditions have different styles that sometimes do not sit comfortably within the new language. The first part of the book includes several chapters where the perspective is written from a point-of-view that is not quite omniscient, but neither does it put us fully in the head of any one character. Indeed, in these chapters the characters (a novice reporter and an even more novice photographer) whose storyline we follow are not even given names. As a result, it leaves one somewhat disjointed and removed from the action, and somewhat uncertain as to who the principal characters are.
Indeed, this remains a bit of a problem throughout the beginning of the tale, for the story begins with an exceptionally brief quote from Strindberg dating to 1896, then quickly moves to a scene centering on Don Titelman (a historian and drug addict specializing in Nazi occult symbolism), then turns back a few days or weeks in time to focus on an amateur cave diver Erik Hall, before following the tales of the novice reporters, then back to Hall before finally settling on Titelman. While those of you who follow my blog (or indeed read my books) know that I enjoy stories told from multiple perspectives, the nature of this swirling POV did make it a bit difficult to empathize with any one character, and so pulled me a bit out of the story. This was particularly the case for the chapters following the unnamed reporters. We spent quite a bit of time with them, but never get a name, which left me wondering who this story was about. It also made it difficult to truly sympathize with them, which in turn kept me emotionally reserved from the book. Then again, one never is misled into thinking they are actually principal characters, and they do disappear totally from the tale once they leave the action.
There are other elements about the book that grated as well. Half-or-more of the way through, we suddenly discover that Titelman has a photographic memory, something that only seems to have come up when it was useful to the plot. Similarly, his sister seems to have skills that, while they are alluded to early in the text, seem very convenient to happen to have when one is on the run. There are abrupt and blatant info dumps that could truly irritate some readers (though admittedly, I found their introduction well managed and quite interesting).
Yet having said all that, there are other elements about the book that I adored. The characters are brilliantly flawed. If you are looking for a single, heroic protagonist, go elsewhere, for in this book even the most sympathetic characters are seriously damaged goods. All of them, most especially the drug abusing, middle aged protagonist, are defective in a manner that both appalls and engages. What is more, all of them can be said to represent considerably more than is merely stated in the text.
Indeed, at first I wondered how a German reading this text might view their nationalities depiction, but then, I thought of the Jewish characters in the book, and I began to realize what Wallentin had done. There is not a single nationality portrayed in this book whose walks away unscathed. Without ever making a single statement, Wallentin damns us all for our collaboration, not just with the elements of World War II, but with our culpability with all that led up to and followed it. Yet he also gives us sympathic insights as well, transforming both the heroic and the despicable into the pathetic.
And that, I think, is why I needed to invent a new category in my review. For there are elements of this story that will not appeal to aficionados of its myriad genres, and there are elements that could use serious improvement regardless of its original language. In the end, however, it is a very thoughtful read that continues to make me think. It very bravely makes me face concepts that I am not comfortable with, and that makes it well worth a read.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
Yet again, Penguin Audio has produced a superior quality audiobook, in this case, narrated by veteran actor Graeme Malcolm. Malcolm’s credits span stage and screen, but in this aural venue, his talents delight. His smooth easy voice is ideally suited for narration, and he switches brilliantly between the many many dialects and accents found in this book.
Additionally, he wisely chose his own native accent to replace that of the Swedes, who make up the center of this novel. God-only-knows how it could have sounded if he had decided to fake a Swedish accent for the central characters. Instead, when the action occurred in Swedish, he spoke in his native tongue, and when a German or Norwegian or Argentinean or Belgian or the like appeared center stage, he gave them accent. Whether those accents were always spot on, I can’t tell, but they were good enough for me and never pulled me from the story. Indeed, given the cavalcade of nationalities seen in this book, one could not possibly cover all the accents with 100% accuracy.
Even so, Malcolm came close and I wholly enjoyed his reading of the book.
 Perhaps the best and most classic example of this is Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, the single best submarine novel ever written. Translated from German, Das Boot is written entirely in the first person present tense: something that can take some getting used to for your average English language reader (such as myself). Strindberg’s Star has nothing so jarring, but there are some elements that seem odd.
 Indeed, perhaps the German was a little clichéd, and the Argentinean could just as easily been a Croatian.
- Author Interview: Jan Wallentin (Strindberg’s Star Giveaway!) (roofbeamreader.net)
- Thrillers: review roundup (guardian.co.uk)
- Hero With the Yidish Noz (bibliolust.wordpress.com)
- Strindberg, One of Sweden’s premier writers – richly faceted and controversial (blogblooms.wordpress.com)
- Books: Sue Prideaux’s “Strindberg” review. (newyorker.com)