Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Hitman's Guide to HousecleaningThe Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hallgrimur Helgason’s “The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning” is an outstanding book. It is beautifully written and funny; it has an outlandish yet engrossing plot, and an unexpected depth.

Tomislav Boksic, aka Toxic, a Croatian American, is a hitman, a highly successful contract killer. He has flawlessly executed 66 people so far, yet #67 brings trouble, which causes Tomislav to find himself in Iceland. Various adventures in Iceland, including involvement with a fundamentalist Christian sect, constitute the gist of the book.

There are four layers to the novel. On the top there is the writing layer. Mr. HH, an Icelandic writer, famous for his “Reykjavik 101”, wrote this book in English himself, as I understand. He did a better job with the language than 90% of writers who are native speakers of English. He has fun with the language; the book is full of wonderful puns, plays on words, and language jokes. The writing is so hilarious that I was LOL’ing many, many times.

The second layer is the plot. Of course it is absurd, but then it manages to seem more realistic than the tired, formulaic plots of huge majority of thrillers. There is something almost approaching “magical realism” in the novel. Everything makes sense in this plot, given the absurd universe it resides in. There are no cheap “twists and turns” in the plot.

Sociological and cultural observations constitute the next layer. I love the portrayal of Iceland and Icelanders. It is not particularly sympathetic, but I feel I have learned more about the country than from any other Icelandic book I have read (and several movies I have seen). People of some other nations are caricatured too and quite well (I can vouch for this as I represent one of these nations). The whole plot of the Christian sect is fascinating. Yes, it is exaggerated, but to exactly the right extent.

Finally, when one peels away the writing, the humor, the plot, and the observations, there is a deeply human core to the novel. It is about how ethnic hatred, which is one of the most characteristic features of our deeply flawed species, destroys nations and people. It about how this hatred transforms sensible, gentle, and loving people into ruthless killing machines.

(An aside: when I finished reading the book I looked at some reviews on Goodreads. They were, as usual, mostly clever and insightful. However, one of the reviews rendered me speechless. The reviewer was indignant that Tomislav kills a dog. No further comment.)

Four and three quarters stars.

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