New feature here at Upscale Shack. Occasionally we’re going to review books. It’s rare that I select a book based on a written review. Often, when I do read a book review, it’s after I’ve already read the book, usually to see if other readers have come away with the same impression I have, or if I missed some vital bit of information that someone else picked up. I’m going to strive to keep these reviews short and simple, to not be tempted to divulge spoilers and plot details in the vein of a 5th grade book report, but to hopefully offer something more substantial than the one-line reviews so often offered by the philistine trolls on Amazon. You’ve seen them: “Reading is hard. This book sucks, bro. This writer is lame.”
I’m starting with The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson (ISBN-13: 978-0062329127), not because it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but because it’s the most recent. I picked it up at our book exchange at work, not having heard of the author, and I have to admit that the attractive and unusual cover is what drew my attention. (You know you do this, too. How many times have you bought a bottle of wine only because the label drew your attention?) The cover blurb mentioned South Africa, appealing to my nature as an Afrophile, which was enough to convince me to give it a try.
Jonasson is from Sweden, which is a country I don’t often associate with a sense of humor. He is a former journalist, which can also be a rather humorless profession. But Jonasson’s writing is anything but serious. This book is a grand farce, a collection of increasingly improbable events all connected by a central character, an orphaned girl from Soweto with a savant-like ability to memorize facts and calculate complex algebraic formulas.
Every sentence of this book is written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But for a book that tries so hard not to be serious, it’s just not that funny. Maybe in the original Swedish it’s an uproarious belly shaker, but in English it’s just kind of silly. Readers of Tom Robbins and Douglas Adams will recognize the seriocomedic style, but Jonasson lacks Robbins’ profane humor and Adams’ clever wit. It just falls flat.
No character in this book is likable, even the protagonist, whom I really wanted to like, but she suffered from such a lack of character development that I was left knowing very little about her. Likability isn’t a deal-breaker, there are plenty of fantastic novels with utterly despicable characters. But depth is vital. Every character of this novel is flat and one-dimensional. We are told that the protagonist, Nombeko, is a beautiful and incredibly intelligent woman, yet we are never offered any detailed description. It’s rare that I come away from a book with a completely blank mental image of a character, but try as I might, I have no idea how what Nombeko looks like, other than being a black African woman of a certain age. But it’s not just the lack of any physical description, her character has no depth whatsoever. We have no idea what motivates her, what interests her, what goes on inside that genius brain of hers. She only appears as a gimmick, a human calculator with an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. She’s a one-trick pony whose intellect always saves the day in some implausible way.
We may excuse a Swede for not being able to fully get inside the head of a character from Soweto, but the Swedish characters are even less developed, and even more unlikable. We are led to believe that the improbable character of Holgar Two is also mentally gifted, to the level that he attains dual PhD’s in economics and political science, yet he has virtually no dialogue, and exists merely as a foil to his equally improbable idiotic twin brother, Holgar One.
Clearly this book has problems from a literary perspective. It’s highly unlikely that Jonasson will bring the Nobel Prize for literature home to Sweden anytime soon. Yet, despite its flaws, I still kinda liked it. A little. It was an amusing break from reality for the day or two that it took to read it. It requires very little mental input from the reader. A good mental distraction. Something to read on a beach, or in short snippets during a long commute. Read it for the same reason that you watch reality shows on TV or silly romantic comedy movies. Not because you expect it to change your life, but only to amuse you temporarily until you can go about immediately forgetting you ever read it.
You may learn something about South African history and Swedish non-interventionist foreign policy, but nothing that five minutes on Wikipedia couldn’t tell you. Read it and enjoy it, but just don’t be tempted to over-think it. It’s not that kind of book.