“The Legacy”: Everything that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is not
My summer’s quota of fiction reading started with Steig Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and is ending (this Labor Day weekend, before the madness of the Fall semester robs me of the time to read anything not written in or about seventeenth-century England) with Kirsten Tranter’s debut novel “The Legacy”; and, I couldn’t have imagined my reading to have come to quite such a complete circle. I am probably of the small minority of people who are puzzled by the Larsson phenomena. I am not a *huge* suspense novel reader and even then it seemed to me that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” followed most, if not all, of the suspense novel strategies right down to finding the least suspicious character turn out to be the most hideous in the end. Sure, I raced through the reading and certainly wanted to know what happened at the end but by and large it was forgettable. The prose was not particularly charming either though that could be blamed on the English translation but I doubt it was only that. I didn’t really think about Larsson’s book till I finished reading “The Legacy”, today. It turns out that the plot of both the novels piece together the story of a missing girl, presumed dead. “The Legacy” is everything “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is not; it is a suspense novel that you want to read slowly, savoringly where the mounting pressure of suspense leaves enough room to reflect on this pressing need to know what happened. If Larsson’s book, and the hype around it, is about suspense novels in its most recognizable form, Tranter’s novel teases convention, plays with expectations and tells a suspense story without the help of a slick detective.
“The Legacy” warms the cockles of the English major’s heart. It is at the same time a take on Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” as it is a story about university students whose lives are consumed by and are full of references to the literature and film classes they take. Ingrid Grey, the missing girl, is a graduate student who studies ancient roman magical curse tablets. It is as if her research re-animates the ancient curses and ill-will as New York City is plunged into the crisis of 9/11 and her life is engulfed in it. The decidedly un-detective detective is Julia Alpers, a rival and a friend to Ingrid back in Sydney; she travels to New York a year after 9/11 to find out about Ingrid’s life but also to work out her own unrequited love for Ralph and her unresolved feelings towards Ingrid. I was most moved by Julia’s experience of New York City when she first arrives in fall and as winter gradually sets in. New York City is as much a character in the story as the others, among whom is the memorable Mrs Bee: an unlikely psychic and likely junkie, who never steps out of her apartment as if to avoid confrontations with the City.
As a victim of my own compulsions, I asked myself what the understated strain of magic does to a suspense novel. Ancient curse tablets excavated and studied, skeptical sessions of tea leaf readings, sudden enigmatic predictions that Julia wants to but cannot draw out in a narrative push the frontiers of what can be known but may not be understood. And to me that is the heart of “The Legacy”. If the genre of the suspense novels is about the thrill of knowledge – prised open, pieced together – then “The Legacy” asks, at what price?