The exhausting, fractured snippets of action and memory clustered at the opening to Peter Hoeg's superb new novel accurately convey the shattered state of its hero's life. Kasper Klone is an internationally acclaimed clown wanted in a dozen countries for financial irregularity. He is facing jail in Spain and crushing tax fines in Denmark. His father is dying of cancer. Since Kasper's trapeze-artist mother died from a high fall, the one woman who had briefly come close to his inner core is Stina, a geodesist who emerged from the sea like a neoprene-clad Venus de Milo walking ashore backwards while shedding tanks and flippers. She disappeared after a fewmonths of brief, intense encounters in Kasper's modest caravan. He comes to realise that she was always part of the con that involves the quiet girl of the title.
Kasper's astounding gift is "his ability to access people's acoustic essence, especially children's", and to listen well beyond the normal aural spectrum. Nine-year-old KlaraMaria first accosted Kasper after one of his performances. He immediately sensed the quietness in her aura, because KlaraMaria, he discovers, has a similar prescient ability with sound waves which, a year later, gets her abducted by a criminal corporation determined to exploit her prescience and him hauled in by some very unusual nuns bent on using Kasper's skills to find and safeguard the girl, all in the few days before he is deported for tax fraud.
Kasper's legal travails swiftly cohere into a breakneck sequence of increasingly violent confrontations as he ricochets around Copenhagen, assisted by a jag-driving circus stuntman. Hoeg throws in some terrific set pieces (such as evading capture in a posh restaurant during an earthquake) which give this dense thriller plenty of adrenaline. Pursued by tenacious monks, lawyers, agents from the shady "Department H" and the odd killer, Kasper is minded by a black nun who struggles to suppress her erotic aura and, it turns out, also has two children and a black belt in Aikido. Many characters share the circus knack of seeming to vanish into thin air in Hoeg's artful stagecraft, which complements the mystical quality of Kasper's aural divination.
Admittedly, these acoustics can get a bit much. Kasper can triangulate a phone caller's location by identifying the tonality of Copenhagen's church clocks chiming in the background – technically plausible – but "he could hear her body's growth processes, tissue building up, the future reprogramming of her hormonal system" crosses several boundaries, whilst "the female abdomen had always sounded to him like a bronze Tibetan singing bowl filled with fruit" leaves paranormal aural precision for exotic fantasy. Hoeg lays himself open to overgilding (or just silliness), but this ornate style gradually creates an alluring texture reminiscent of the richness of description and obscure manoeuvrings in James Buchan's mazy thrillers.
In some ways Hoeg is re-treading old ground with fresh zest. His first bestseller, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, found Smilla, an Greenlander in Copenhagen, tracking a faceless corporation that she believed had murdered her only friend, a small child. An expert understanding of snow defined her investigation just as Kasper's aural magic compels his ordeal. Smilla was followed by the superior Borderliners, which (among many other things) moved from physical to philosophical properties by enquiring into the elastic nature of time, and suggested a theme of compassion that Kasper picks up.
At once intricate and explosive, The Quiet Girl is elegantly written and furiously plotted, resonant (though not acoustically) of Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy and also David Mamet's elaborately staged deceptions.