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A quest for silence, and for answers

Peter Hoeg's protagonist, a man who hears too much, is searching for a girl of intriguing silence.

By Peter Hoeg

Translated from Danish

by Nadia Christensen

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

408 pp. $26

Reviewed by Martha Woodall


The Quiet Girl

, the latest novel by Danish author Peter Hoeg, a 10-year-old girl with singular powers has gone missing, and Kasper Krone, a famed circus clown with gambling debts, tax problems, and a rarefied sense of hearing, promises to save her.

Krone's willingness to face down thugs and influential adversaries to honor a pledge to save the child and solve the mystery behind her disappearance echoes elements of Hoeg's acclaimed 1993 work,

Smilla's Sense of Snow

. In that haunting thriller, a perennial outsider - the half-Inuit, half-Danish Smilla Jasperson - sets out to answer lingering questions about a 6-year-old boy from her apartment building who appears to have fallen to his death from the roof of a nearby warehouse.

Krone is a Danish native, but he's an outsider, too. He grew up in the vagabond world of high-wire acts and circus performers and became a headlining musical clown renowned for his virtuoso violin skills. But what really sets him apart is his uncanny ability to "hear" people and places.

"SheAlmighty," the name Krone bestows on the deity who composes the music he hears, "had tuned each person in a musical key, and Kasper could hear it."

Because of Krone's preternatural audio sensitivity, he is constantly bombarded by the sounds around him: pulsing hearts, the thrum of electrical currents, and the purr of expensive watches. "Night is not a time of day, night is not an intensity of light; night is a sound. . . . Kasper heard children fall asleep, dogs go to sleep, machines get turned off. He heard the strain on the electricity grid decrease, the water usage diminish."

Krone encounters the girl, KlaraMaria, in the opening chapter, when a glamorous couple brings her to his studio outside Copenhagen for a therapeutic session of sorts. "She's a nervous child. She gets very tense," the woman tells Krone. "You were recommended to us by people at Bispebjerg Hospital. In the children's psychiatric ward."

The clown is struck immediately by the powers he senses in the child - and by her unusual silence. He tells a nun who has worked with the girl, "For most of my life . . . I've searched for silence. Within oneself, and between people. I know it's to be found."

It turns out that the couple are not KlaraMaria's parents. The girl and a boy with the same mysterious clairvoyance have been kidnapped by a group of wealthy businesspeople intent on harnessing the children's powers for profit. Krone promises the nuns and their supporters that he will fulfill the promise he has made to KlaraMaria and save her and the boy.

In his quest, he uncovers secret corners of the Danish government, encounters physicians researching premature births, and penetrates a shadowy corporate world whose suspicious real estate deals tied to a series of recent earthquakes are generating dazzling wealth.

Along the way, Krone seeks help from his dying father, former lovers, and a hodgepodge of strangers who seem miraculously to appear at critical junctures.

The Quiet Girl

is an engrossing, beautifully written tale of suspense. But in Peter Hoeg's hands, a thriller is never just a thriller. Along with the usual ingredients of mystery, mayhem and peril, Hoeg's works offer philosophical explorations threaded with information about arcane subjects. In

Smilla's Sense of Snow,

readers learn a lot about Greenland, glacial morphology, navigation and orienteering.

In this novel, Hoeg shows a commanding knowledge of Bach and musical composition, acoustics, and seismology, as well as uncommon familiarity with Copenhagen's underground water and sewerage systems. And, as if that's not enough, this densely plotted novel also explores love, the meaning of family, and man's search for the divine.

Thrillers, of course, are meant to be improbable, and this one truly is. It's best not to question the reality Hoeg conjures in

The Quiet Girl

, which may not be in the same sublime league as


, but is still a multilayered, captivating ride.