As I reported a couple of posts ago, Hesperus Press have started up a book club and were kind enough to send me a proof copy of the first book to review:

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“The Merman” opens with two troubled children, 15-year-old Nella and her younger brother Robert. They live in the small coastal town of Skogstorp in Sweden and it’s the 1980s. The troubles come from several directions: home, which consists of an alcoholic mother and an absent-in-prison father; school, where Robert is brutally bullied by a sadistic set of boys; and the world and authorities in general, who seem to have let Nella and Robert slip through the net. She comforts her brother by telling him stories, with the assurance that “There is a beginning and there is an ending. And everything has to get worse before it gets better. That’s how it is in stories. It’s as if they invite it, as if nature itself invites the pain to intensify before it can ebb away. But one day the pain would disappear. One day, something would happen to change history, to transform it into a new, better story.”

Nella has spent much of her life fiercely protecting her brother, but as the story starts events seem to be spiralling out of control; mostly this is due to a psychotic classmate of Nella’s called Gerard, who takes the persecution of Robert to new levels bordering on torture. His character is displayed early on with a very unpleasant event with a kitten 😦 As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the children’s father is released from prison and returns to the home, bringing a very unsavoury character with him and disturbing the dynamic of the household even more. Nella has few allies, one of them being her friend Tommy, but his older brothers are behaving in an unnerving, secretive way and Nella stumbles upon more than just cigarette smuggling when she investigates at the old boat house.

This is a dark, troubling book on many levels. For a start, the plight of Nella and Robert is just heartbreaking. I have no idea whether this is an accurate portrayal of what could have happened unnoticed in Sweden in the eighties, but if it is I hope things have moved on! Then there is the general cruelty and indifference of the other children, which is not so surprising to anyone who’s read “The Lord of the Flies”. And in fact, this is quite an important facet of the book – Carl-Johan Vallgren’s somewhat jaded viewpoint seems to acknowledge the tendency to pack mentality and casual brutality in humans of all ages, and a need to persecute anything or anyone different.

Which brings us to the title character. It isn’t a surprise when he makes his appearance but his portrayal is one of the strongest points of the books. With the collision of reality and fantasy, Nella encounters a creature unlike anything she’s met before, who can communicate by thought and emotion (probably a deliberate choice on Vallgren’s part to emphasise the difference between good and bad characters in the book) but who is as vulnerable to the nastiness going on as Nella and Robert, and is being tormented by his captors too.

“All the time we were treating it, it was like the creature was accompanying us by means of a sort of melody, inaudible but still beautiful and calming, as if it was letting its inner being flow through us, out of gratitude for our help. It was speaking to us in its strange way, reassuring us that it recognised us and it trusted  us. It wondered where it was, what sort of strange world it had been taken to, and if anyone could return it to where it belonged.”

I don’t want to say too much about the book which might give things away, as I think it’s important not to diminish the impact events have on the reader; but there are twists and turns, Nella’s Dad is involved more than is obvious at first, Gerard’s psychosis takes on monumental proportions and there is a race against time to save those in danger. There is a resolution of sorts but not without a moving sacrifice being made; things do become better after having become worse, although the solution is not perfect.

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This is a powerful book, and a worthy start to Hesperus’s Book Club. It’s proof that not all Swedish fiction is murder mysteries and that an unusual amalgam of fantasy and reality can produce a compelling story – highly recommended!

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