As the season starts to turn and the warmth of summer slips into autumn’s melancholy, we instinctively reach out for things that give us comfort and warmth – something to brace the coming cold. It is a time to hurry back home from work and put on a woolly jumper, make yourself a cup of tea and sit back in a comfy armchair. A perfect companion for evenings like these is The Merman.
In his latest novel, award-winning Swedish author Carl-Johan Vallgren tells the story of a young teenage girl named Nella, who looks after herself and her younger brother Robert in a small village on the Swedish coast. Having known nothing but poverty, she tries to make the best of their lives, because no one else will. Her mum is an apathetic drunk whose self-pity has reduced her to a dazed state of neglect. Her dad is a petty criminal and a dangerously hot-tempered man- the kind of father better to have in jail, rather than out. Driven by her love for her fragile brother, she takes to shoplifting in a desperate effort to feed and clothe them both. At the same time, Nella has to find ways to pay off a bunch of thugs from their school, who will stop at nothing to make their world as hellish as possible. In her desperation, she reaches out to her friend Tommy, who has stayed away from school for unexplained reasons. When she goes looking for him, Nella is sucked into a mystery that throws her entire existence into an almost supernatural light.
Yet, Vallgren keeps The Merman from becoming a supernatural story. It is about real people with real problems, fears, friends and family. He succeeds in never sacrificing this sense of stark realism for plot contrivances, confidently interweaving the ordinary with the extraordinary. In this respect, The Merman compares favourably to Bridge to Terabithia. Vallgren’s committed to write as honestly and artlessly as possible, refusing to give in to morality or sentimentality. If this is a new fairy tale, it isn’t interested in covering up harsh truths. Instead, it adds tenderness and true warmth to characters knee-deep in sorrow, fear and numb resignation. It tells us that even in the depths of despair we can see our suffering reflected in the understanding eyes of an unlikely friend.
At its heart, it is a wonderful character-driven story. As Nella is drawn deeper into the plot, the more the reader is drawn in along with her. The emotional immediacy of it all makes for an enveloping adventure on a very human scale.
A captivating, bleak tale about youth and friendship, The Merman honours the Scandinavian tradition when it comes to this kind of story: it is unassumingly simple, sweetly aching, heart-warming and absolutely beautiful.