First impressions before reading the book:
I didn’t know anything about this book, but I had already read The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, by the same author. It’s completely ridiculous, but I enjoyed it for it’s easiness to read. Therefore I expected roughly the same from The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden.
I don’t want to say too much about it because there’s a crucial part of what the book’s about, but it’s a major part of the plot and that might be a bit too spoiler-y for a review. The novel is told in different sections to begin with. One part follows Nombeko Mayeki, a South African girl who has no money and works as a latrine emptier. The second section follows Ingmar Qvist and his family in Sweden, which later moves on to follow his sons. The characters come together when Nombeko arrives in Sweden and meets one of Ingmar’s sons. One major issue I have with this novel is it’s farfetchedness. It’s one thing to have a few hard to believe characteristics, but it’s highly unlikely that anything in this book would truly happen. Nombeko is born in a South African ‘shantytown’ as it’s referred to in the book, and learns to read from a perverted man, and happens to have a rare gift for maths and learning, despite her circumstances. After being run over, she goes to work for an engineer and gives him advice on how to run his maximum security plant making atomic bombs. After making her escape, she tricks two Israelian intelligence officers into buying her a plane ticket to Sweden (where she’s also moved up to first class?). After meeting Holger Two (more on that later) she ends up at his pillow factory, debating how to solve the problem that she has. They end up at Celestine (Holger One’s girlfriend) grandmother’s house, they have an encounter with the Prime Minister of Sweden and the King of Sweden, completely unburdened by security guards… This is roughly where the story ends, there is no one build up to a moment where Nombeko truly ‘saves’ the King of Sweden. I was left mostly unimpressed.
Most of the story is told from Nombeko’s perspective, so arguably she’s the main character. She’s a likeable character, but her traits are highly implausible. She’s portrayed basically as a genius, despite her lack of education. Jonasson has her learning languages fluently in impossibly short times, and she has the ability to easily get her out of situations that would almost certainly result in her death. If one of these characteristics had been chosen it would have been readable, but all of them together left me raising an eyebrow at the ridiculousness of it all.
Ingmar is also an absurd character, but the manner his character has is at least fair. At the beginning of the novel he devotes his life to meeting the King of Sweden in order to thank him for giving him stamps at the age of 14, which he wasn’t able to thank him at the time for. After meeting the King and being told he was a scoundrel, Ingmar has a complete turnaround and becomes a republican, devoting his life to sullying the King’s name. He has two identical twin sons with his wife, both of whom he names Holger as there was only meant to be one son to carry on his nonsense, and only one son is registered as having been born.
Holger One and Two, as they are known, are portrayed as complete opposites. Both only receiving half an education as a result of Ingmar’s demands, One follows in the footsteps of his father, being brainwashed by his politics, whereas Two is intelligent and disillusioned with everything that his father believes in. After their father’s death, the Holgers move to a factory which distributes pillows, buying it from a man who retires, and upon leaving the factory immediately dies. This is another aspect of the book which I found a bit over the top, it was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the story. Holger One meets an “angry young woman”, whereas Holger Two starts a romantic relationship with Nombeko.
The angry young woman is Celestine, who I briefly mentioned earlier. She shares Holger One’s over the top political views, frequently referring to the police as “pigs” in the book, for example. Apart from this characteristic, her character isn’t that fleshed out.
There are so many characters in the novel that it would take me forever to go through and list what they brought to the story, but one thing that did really irk me was the fact that none of the characters are particularly relatable. Their backgrounds are mostly completely unbelievable, and most of the struggles that humanise them and allow the reader to relate are glossed over, or written in a nonchalant way. For example, near the start of the book Ingmar’s wife and the Holgers’ mother Henrietta dies. There is barely any evidence of grief, and the story moves on very quickly as if it never happened. It wasn’t essential to the plot, there was a lot of senseless killing off of characters because they weren’t central to the plot, whereas their involvement in the novel could have been written out in a different way.
Would I recommend it?
It was an easy read. I didn’t find it nearly as enjoyable as The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed out a Window and Disappeared, but I didn’t hate it. What I would say is that you have to go into it expecting something completely fabricated and fictional. Obviously with reading any fiction novel, there’s always going to be an element of the unbelievable, that’s why it’s fiction, but this novel has a lot more than most. The story didn’t particularly hook me at any point, I did read it to the end but I ended up just wishing I was finished so it was over and done with. If you’re looking for an easy read, and a complete escape from reality, this might be for you. I’d probably give it 3 stars.
I know this is a much longer review than I normally write, but I found a lot more with this book to nitpick at than the other ones that I’ve written reviews for so far. I hope I don’t come across as too critical, like I said at the beginning of my post, I really enjoyed Jonasson’s first book, and was expecting the same caliber of book, which is not what this is. It’s a shame, but I started doing this because I always find people’s opinions interesting, and it would be unrealistic if I loved every single book I read.
I found the desciption and the way that black people were portrayed in the novel difficult to read. The main character is a black South African female, and the way that other characters spoke to her made me incredibly uncomfortable. Throughout the book she’s referred to as “darky” and written off as just a stupid cleaning lady despite the help that she gives to other more privileged characters. It’s illustrative of the time and setting of the novel, but even so I found it unnecessary and tough to read. I thought I would mention that in case anyone doesn’t want to have to read such blatant racism (from the characters, not the author obviously).
But like I said, I didn’t hate it. I just wasn’t blown away. I would still read more of his writing in the future, and I hope that if you choose to read this book, you remember that it does have good points. The plot is the same throughout the entire book, centered around one element that never changes. This makes it easy to follow, and if you put it down and pick it back up weeks or even a month later, you’ll still remember what’s going on. I know I said there were a lot of characters, but it’s not Game of Thrones volume of characters, they’re still easily figured out and how they relate to the story. Second novels are always difficult to pen when your debut was such a success, the novel is written in the same manner as his debut, I just found it a bit too over the top for my taste. Which isn’t to say that anyone else will feel the same, please remember that it’s just my opinion, and in no way would I ever want to criticise the writing or the author. Because as I’ve said about three times now, I didn’t mind it that much.
But if you’re still reading by this point and you’re on the fence, definitely give The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared a go, because that one I really did enjoy!
I’m taking part in the Goodreads 2016 reading challenge! If you’d like to see what i’ve been reading you can find me here. Also, if you have any suggestions for books you’d think I would enjoy please let me know, i’m always on the lookout for new reading material!