A Swedish teenager tries to protect a merman from their violent surroundings.
Fifteen-year-old Nella lives in a coastal town in western Sweden and must endure not only the bullies who torment her and her younger brother, Robert, but an alcoholic mother and petty-thief father, as well. As the violence threatens to overwhelm Nella—and with her brother counting on her as his sole protector—she turns to her only friend, Tommy, who's busy trying to protect his own family's secret: while his brothers were illegally running cigarettes at sea, they captured a merman in a net and are keeping him in their fisherman's hut. As one particular bully’s threats against Nella and Robert escalate, Nella’s desperation mirrors the imprisoned merman’s as they both seek escape. Vallgren (Documents Concerning Rubashov the Gambler, 2008, etc.) has written a deeply dark novel (with Flynn’s pitch-perfect translation of the teenage slang adding to the characters’ hard edges), and many scenes—especially of animal torture—may push some readers to the edge of bearability. The book’s picture of the cruelty that parents can inflict on their children, that people can inflict on animals, and that children can inflict on each other is a bleak one. But without it, Vallgren’s emphasis on empathy toward others might lose its immediacy; as Nella says of her own mother, “If I tried to understand who she was, there was basically no room for judging her, and if I judged her, that reduced the chances of understanding her.” Nella’s wise stoicism makes her a memorable and affecting character, and her connection to the mistreated merman shows that working toward understanding is what can ultimately lead to redemption.
A grim and moving contemporary fairy tale.