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Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus

November 20, 2014 1 comment

Shark-Fin-Soup-A-Novel-925952-de1b144434251bbaefad

Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is not a book that hides its light under a bushel. It believes in starting out with its message in the title and then relentlessly pushing it through the rest of the book. So here we go with fiction’s equivalent of fantasy ecoterrorism as applied to the habit of many in China and Asia to enjoy soup made solely from the fin of a shark. It might not be so bad if they would eat all the meat (and use the bones for stock), but the exclusivity of their interest means the fish are hunted for their fins and the rest is thrown away. This is waste on an epic scale as these predators are being hunted to extinction. Of course, the rest of the world is relatively indifferent to the fate of sharks. Just as the majority seem unmoved by the number of land animals that are either dying out naturally or being hunted for their valuable qualities, so humans seem not to care too much so long as they have enough to eat at a reasonable price. Of course, if overfishing were to mean the more common species disappeared or climate change inflated to cost of staples like wheat and corn to unaffordable levels, there would be an outcry. But until there’s a direct threat, only a few care.

This leaves activists to carry the burden alone. Many of these people take the view that all fish and animals have an intrinsic value. In Kantian terms, this would create a moral absolute to protect them because their value would be beyond all price, i.e. it would be morally acceptable to damage and destroy property and, in more extreme cases, to injure and kill the humans responsible for the exploitation or destruction of the given fish or animals, or their habitat. This is morality moving beyond mere beliefs, emotions, opinions or dogma. It’s seeking a justification for terrorism that will rank alongside divine law for those of a religious persuasion, or the philosophical analysis that will appeal to the rational. Obviously, this is not the place to debate the merits of such attempts to intellectualise and justify making all classifications of flora and fauna more important than the needs of the human community. However, you will understand that this book is firmly on the side of those who take direct action, including murder. This particular terrorist, the impressively named Christian Roberts, is to be the hero of this book and the author evidently expects readers to approve the outcome of what he does.

Susan Klaus

Susan Klaus

The first third of the book explains the circumstances in which the hero’s wife died and how this has come to motivate him to save the sharks. It also sets up a psychological study of the man who’s essentially depressed, sometimes drunk or high on drugs, and suicidal as a result of losing his wife (and what happened immediately afterwards). In practical terms, this loosens the man’s inhibitions. He no longer cares what happens to him. In this reckless state, he’s quite happy to commit a range of offences from arson, planting explosives, to murder. In this man’s mind, the end of saving the sharks from being hunted into extinction justifies all the means he adopts. Given that he’s a physically attractive man, he breaks the mould of terrorist stereotypes. Adopting the name Captain Nemo, he constructs ever more elaborate plots to disrupt the supply chain and indiscriminately kills diners to deter people from continues to hunt, kill and distribute the fins.

While not denying there’s a certain level of ingenuity to the way in which he achieves his aim, the practical mechanics of each step do rely on being able to find people who will help him, both in carrying out his attacks, and in escaping the consequences. Because this is a series character with a third book presumably already in the works, he emerges from the courtroom at the end without having to face trial and to the cheers of the now supportive citizens of New York. In the next book he has a choice of targets. He could hunt down those who tap baby seals on the head in Canada, or those who cut off the horns of rhinos in Africa, or those who stun and kill cattle in American slaughter houses. There’s no end of cruelties to avenge once you open the door to action against abuses in the food chain. Personally, I think the message gets in the way of the book without seriously evaluating the protagonist’s mental state and deciding whether he’s genuinely motivated by some degree of altruism to protect the sharks or is merely on a personal crusade because he’s enjoying the destruction and death. So, sadly, I find Shark Fin Soup unpalatable as a piece of writing. Worse, it also fails as a piece of propaganda. I might have forgiven the book if it had made out a good argument for preventing the further destruction of endangered species for human food production. But it emotes emptily and fails to construct even a token argument that might convince people to rise up and force lawmakers to enact and enforce strict controls.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten

October 14, 2013 Leave a comment

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten (Soho Press, 2014) translated by Laura A Wideburg, was first published in 2005 as Eldsdansen. It’s the seventh in the series featuring Detective Inspector Irene Huss. She’s a forty-something wife and mother who just happens to be a judo expert — a skill that comes into play with surprising regularity during the series albeit less directly in this novel. She’s what we might term an Everywoman. Although she has fighting skills, they don’t depend on physical strength. She doesn’t do the job as a detective because she’s tough, sees the job as glamourous, enjoys the power the job gives her over others, or feels she has something to prove as a woman in a man’s world. She’s a mom who’s saving Sweden when she can fit it in round her schedule. Fortunately her husband, an excellent chef, has done a deal with a restaurant that usually allows him to work part-time. This gives him the chance to do the bulk of the work offering support for their two daughters when it’s asked for. Her boss is Superintendent Sven Andersson, a man who loves opera, strong beer and schnapps, and struggles with the tensions between the male and female staff, and the local politics of nationality. Keeping us up to date with the story in visual terms, Yellow Bird has produced six Irene Huss films.

This novel starts off at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2004 in which a particularly striking young woman walks into the Park Aveny Hotel Bar. An extended flashback then takes us to 1989/90 and, once we’ve absorbed the necessary information, we return to current time. The hook for the plot is Sophie Malmborg, a young girl who, fifteen years ago, may have been involved in a series of three fires which might have been arson. The third fire occurs at the house she and her immediate family occupied. Unfortunately, when it’s extinguished, the body of her stepfather is discovered. He had an alcohol problem and so could easily have started the fire himself. It should have been easy to clarify the sequence of events but Sophie, already prone to avoiding conversation, becomes effectively mute. Selective mutism in this situation seems to be a choice on her part. None of the police, including the then inexperienced Huss, can elicit any word or gesture from her as answers to their questions. As the years passed, the girl continued to surround herself in silence. This led to a diagnosis of schizoid personality disorder. Now she’s dead. She disappeared from the hotel, was not seen for three weeks and then her dead body was found in a burned shed on an industrial estate. Because it could be directly relevant to the motive for her death, the police force needs to establish exactly what she refused to discuss back in 1989.

Helene Tursten

Helene Tursten

This is not a simple police procedural in which a dedicated officer leads a team of investigators to a triumphant arrest at the end. Rather it’s a story about two families which briefly interact in a moment of crisis. On one side of the legal fence, we’re invited to observe the events in the Huss household. With two daughter both old enough to want their independence but lacking experience in the hardships of life, Irene struggles with the need to give them space. Even though they are probably both entering into unsuitable relationships, they will never learn unless they make mistakes and still have nonjudgmental parents to fall back on. What makes this more difficult than usual is that one of the relationships is with a person on the periphery of the Malmborg case. Indeed, Irene finds that daughter at a party in what may have been the house used to hold Sophie prisoner during the missing three weeks. As her workload increases with gangs in a turf war, Irene is under increasing pressure to solve the Malmborg case. Only then can she hope to find a better balance between work and home, something that’s necessary to reduce the stress levels on all concerned.

On the other side of the fence stand the complicated relationships in the Malmborg case. To understand how and why Sophie died, Irene has to piece together the history of the family. Her attempts to understand the dynamics of the case were frustrated fifteen years earlier. Looking back, she can see many ways in which she failed to ask the right questions of those involved. This time, the solution cannot lie in any words spoken by the key witness. Sophie is no longer available to ask. It must be excavated from Irene’s memory, and from inferences in all she sees and hears as the current investigation progresses. As the pages turn, the picture of Sophie grows ever more tragic. When her father died, she inherited his house, a cottage and a substantial sum of money. Her life has always been about the power of dance to express emotion. She’s become a choreographer, opening “her” house to a Brazilian dancer called Marcelo Alves, and her younger brother who also dances and studies photography. The house itself has changed very little since her father’s death. He was also reclusive. As a composer of national importance, his piano and suite of rooms remain as a kind of shrine. The current state of the house is a little like Miss Havisham’s approach to household management. Wealth and material possessions meant little to Sophie.

The answers in the deaths of Sophie Malmborg and her stepfather revolve around guilt and pain buried in the past. I did not use the word “tragedy” lightly. Helene Tursten shows us what terrible damage we can do to ourselves and to each other once the fuse is lit and the flame travels towards the accelerants. Only if the family is strong can people pull through such threats with minimal damage. Even though The Fire Dance may not be the most original plot, the way it’s written produces a remarkably powerful story. You should read it!

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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