Available in hard copy from HarperCollins.
We first meet Nombeko at the age of fourteen as a latrine emptier in Soweto, South Africa. At this point it would seem very unlikely that she would ever reach Sweden, let alone get around to saving the king of that country, but this book is by the Jonas Jonasson, author of ‘The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’, master of the absurd, tenuous and ridiculous.
Nombeko’s career follows an unusual path: after the latrines, she becomes a cleaner at an atomic research establishment, then a pillow trader, a potato grower and many many other things. Unique for being able to do what the author describes as ‘counting’ – but what most of the rest of us would recognise as advanced mathematics – Nombeko is at once invaluable to everyone she comes into contact with, yet, at the same time, her life is in danger because she ‘knows too much’.
Following on as it does from ‘The 100 Year Old Man etc’, this book follows much of the same pattern, its timeline stretching over many generations and different locations, and with characters hobnobbing with famous politicians and influencing world events. The author has (real) Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, running around a kitchen wearing an apron and washing the floor, with him the (real) king, Carl XVI Gustaf, sitting around in a bloodstrain shirt having just slaughtered two chickens. Bearing in mind that most publishers and authors refuse to allow us poor aspirant writers to include anything about real living people, I feel Jonas goes too far. And he goes further, with Carl Gustaf infering that his (real) grandfather, King Gustav V, had interfered with one of the (fictional) characters as a child. Whereas I understand from Wikipedia (where else?) that King Gustav had a homosexual lover (in an age where such things were not allowed), there is no firm evidence that he was a paedophile, although I understand (from elsewhere on the internet) that there were rumours. Maybe this is what Swedes gossip about, rather as we speculate about Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson sitting around in tea shops in Frinton-on-Sea, but you can’t set down on the printed/electronic page the sort of thing what you might bandy about amongst your mates.
Jonas also has a very casual attitude towards explosives, as we discovered in the ‘100 Year Man’, but now his nonchalance extends to atomic bombs. Whereas the explosive thing was funny, atomic bombs are not – ever.
The main four characters – Numbeko, the two Holgar brothers and The Angry Young Woman – were excellently drawn and distinct from each other. Jonas managed very effectively to keep Numbeko plucky, feisty and off the wall, even though she was the main character and we saw most of the narrative through her eyes. Other interesting characters included the Holgar brothers’ father and mother, Ingmar and Henrietta, and the delightful ‘three Chinese girls’, who were never properly named. Minor characters, however, tended to be cameos, such as the chairman of the atomic research establishment, Mr van der Westhuizen. In fact, when reading the part of the story which took place in South Africa, I felt I was wading through stereotypes, created in the image of the received liberal establishment view, handed down to the generation who never lived alongside apartheid, unleavened and lacking believable detail.
So would I recommend ‘The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden’? I think you know the answer. It is said about rock bands that their first album is great because it consists of music that has been developed over many years and the third one, which appears much later, is a mature, thoughtful development of their music. In between them comes the second album, which is just a reheating of the band’s first ideas. I believe this rule applies to this second book. I look forward to Jonas’s book number 3, which, I hope, in the nicest possible way, doesn’t appear on the shelves too soon. In the meantime, enjoy some views of rural Sweden. I’ve never been, but I understand it’s very beautiful and unspoilt.
(All images copyright-free).