'Dinosaur Feather' is a dino dud

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It's unfortunate that those who can't read Danish, the language in which "The Dinosaur Feather" was written, will never know whether to blame its author or its translator for its appalling prose. Unlike this novel, the publication of this book is a compelling mystery.

S.J. Gazan may not be much of a writer, but she's no fool. She possesses a degree in biology from the University of Copenhagen and enough business savvy to recognize that Scandinavian crime fiction is enormously popular with Anglophones at the moment, thanks in large part to the success of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, starting with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

By Sissel-Jo Gazan (translated by Charlotte Barslund).
Quercus ($24.95).

The fact that "The Dinosaur Feather" was awarded the Denmark Radio Literature Prize for Best Novel of the Year in 2008 explains why it's found an audience in this part of the world. But it doesn't explain how the Danish could have enjoyed this book.

Its plot is absurdly overwrought. Its dialogue is aggressively unnatural. Its characters are deeply unlikable -- and not in an intriguing, "you might not want to be their friend but you still care what happens to them" sort of way, but rather in a way that makes you want to slam the book shut and run screaming from the room.

The only vaguely sympathetic character is murdered in a grotesque manner that's linked to a gratuitous sexual subplot. Usually I'm all for gratuitous sexual subplots, but somehow Ms. Gazan manages to make even descriptions of Denmark's seamy underworld about as titillating as a grocery list.

Every transition is jarring, every description is hackneyed, and every narrative twist is numbingly over-explained. Ms. Gazan's reliance on clumsy exposition to convey to the reader what's happening at any given moment leaches the book of all dramatic tension and narrative suspense.

Writers are often counseled to "show, don't tell"; there is not a single moment in "The Dinosaur Feather" that isn't told, usually in thudding, tedious detail. The novel's central protagonist, Anna Bella Nor, is perhaps the least likable character I've ever encountered in a novel.

Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is famously flawed, but her horrifying backstory, which is revealed in tantalizing bits and pieces, renders her sympathetic and even heroic. Anna Bella's backstory, which is revealed, awkwardly and all at once, in an implausible monologue toward the end of the book, does not render her more sympathetic in the least.

If anything, the harshness she exhibits toward her parents -- who, the author avers, adore her -- just comes across as pathological. Ms. Gazan takes it for granted that concealing anything from a loved one, for any reason, is always wrong. But people have different attitudes toward well-intended lies, and many would not be traumatized to discover that someone they were close to had once tried to spare them pain by being less than truthful.

Not so our Anna, who, it is constantly stated, has issues with rage. We know when she's getting upset because she "simmer[s] with rage," turns "stone faced," and longs "to explode." Every character description is maddeningly repetitious, and every line of dialogue is excruciatingly stilted.

Confronting her father about a family secret, Anna says, "You're a hard-nosed political analyst, feared and admired, and you're so weak when it comes to [Mom]." Would anyone anywhere really speak that way, particularly to a close relative?

Ms. Gazan's description of Anna's reunion with her old friend, Karen, is straight out of a Maxwell House commercial (or its Danish equivalent): "The ice was broken ... and the water was warm. ... They put the world to rights. Anna found she couldn't stop talking, and Karen laughed at everything she said. ... They could take on the world. ... As long as they were together."

The novel's tortured lone detective character, lost in an erotic reverie about a suspect, dreams that "He would find her in the darkness and put out her fire with gasoline." Earlier in the novel, the detective recalls his betrayal of a former girlfriend: "He had tried to relieve his frustration by doing something completely unacceptable and outrageous. He didn't want to be that guy."

It's impossible to get through two pages of "The Dinosaur Feather" without running smack into something unforgivably leaden or trite. The scientific controversy at the heart of the novel -- Are modern birds descended directly from dinosaurs? -- couldn't be less dramatically engaging, in part because the scientist adversaries, Lars Helland and Clive Freeman, one of whom is killed early in the novel, are just as boring and unlikable as everybody else.

They're also practically indistinguishable: both are unbearably arrogant, both mistreat their wives and both have secret extramarital passions. The only memorable difference is that one is Danish and the other is Canadian. No character comes to life in this novel; even the detective, who has occasional flashes of humanity, thinks and speaks exclusively in cliches.

Recapping a scientific debate that clearly interests the author but fails to capture the reader's imagination is not a sturdy enough basis for a novel, and giving your heroine a temper is not the same as giving her a personality.

The traits Ms. Gazan assigns to her minor characters, which include being good-looking, intelligent, and into "the Goth scene," are not nearly vivid or specific enough to leave any lasting impression. As this is Ms. Gazan's first attempt at a novel, some charity is in order; sadly, after suffering through 433 pages of her writing, I have none left to offer.

Raina Lipsitz (rainalipsitz@gmail.com) has written for The Atlantic (online), Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares and Salon.

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