Category Archives: Jonasson, Jonas

Review of 'The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden' by Jonas Jonasson

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.

Swedish landscapeswedish_landscapeHalso Island

(All images copyright-free).

Review of 'The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' by Jonas Jonasson

Published by Hesperus Press.

I purchased this in Kindle format, not only because the title made me laugh, but it had been reduced to 20p in one of Amazon’s deals.  At that time,  I had no idea that it had sold 20 million copies, or that, according to Hesperus Press, it is about to be made into a film.

As I’d never read a book by a Swedish author before, or visited Sweden, part of this novel’s appeal was that it opened a window into an unfamiliar country and its residents.  The author kept referring to towns and cities, which would probably be as meaningful to Swedish readers as stations on a commuter line in the Home Counties would be to me and fellow Brits.   I have to confess, Dear Reader, that I didn’t look up the Swedish places on the map.  I didn’t want to, as their exotic names and etymological composition had a charm of their own.

What a read!  What a rollercoaster of a ride!  Start suspending your disbelief from the first page.

The story starts in a gentle fashion, with an elderly man, Allan Karlsson, frustrated by the restrictions of living in an old people’s home. However, the next few scenes set the tone of this work, which was what literary critics might call ‘absurdist’  – although at the humorous end of the ‘absurdist’ spectrum .  It’s what I have always thought of as ‘off your trolley’ writing (my term entirely), where extreme events are connected by a daft logic.  At the local bus station, Allan meets a member of a violent criminal gang lugging around a heavy suitcase and in need of the loo – as you do.  As the cubicles are too small for the suitcase, the crim asks Allan to take care of it, only Allan’s bus arrives while the crim is enthroned.  Well, what would you do?

The first element to this novel concerns Allan’s bolt for freedom and the oddballs he collects around him, among them an escaped circus elephant.  The second is the story of Allan’s colourful life told in flashback; Allan was able to use his skills in making explosives, which he had acquired early in life, to get out of tight spots and he had dealings with Franco, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and many other dictators around in the twentieth century.   Even though the two elements were interspersed between chapters, I was never confused or lost.  Both plots made sense and were tidy and complete.

In many other of my reviews, I’ve noted an ‘mc syndrome’, whereby the mc, being used as a window for all other characters, ends up characterless himself or herself.  However, in this book, the ‘Hundred Year Old Man’ is the one with stacks of  character – cool thinking, resourceful and his thinking ‘off the wall’.  Allan will do what is necessary to survive – even if that means, as it did on one occasion, blowing up Vladivostok.  None of the others are as distinctive as Allan and all tend to loom large for a few chapters then lapse into the background.  Julius, for instance, who figured prominently in the initial stages, was hardly mentioned later on.  Also, rather like an Enid Blyton school-story, all the people in the book became ‘nice’ in the end, even the leader of the criminal gang and the police inspector.

So, would I recommend ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ for you to read and enjoy?  Definitely.  And to extend your writing skills?  Yes, to observe how Jonas handled a very complex plot and created an unusual mc.

And, do I think it’s fair that any author should feel pressured to sell his work for 20p, as part of any promotion, run by a multinational corporation which – famously – doesn’t pay tax?  Emphatically, No.  I have to confess that I’m now ashamed of buying it at that price.