*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers. Proceed with appropriate caution.
When I was younger, I went through a phase where my storytelling strategy largely consisted of taking a set of ridiculous characters, throwing them together in an absurd situation, and seeing what happened. (This may have been triggered by my first reading of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which I mostly focused on the Improbability Drive and the falling whale it generated. Also the depressed robot.) Since this was middle school, the dialogue was primarily one-liners and bad puns, and most of these plots ran out of steam after a few pages. I was a novice writer who hadn’t yet discovered the process or genres that worked for me, so these bits and pieces of stories just sort of haunt my Documents folder and provide occasional hilarity when I rediscover them. (My personal favorite is ambitiously entitled, “The Story of a Forwarded Letter, a Post Office Worker, and a Mailbox.” The mailbox decides to break as many laws of physics as it can. It’s a gem.)
Though my own attempts at this sort of thing have (mercifully) fallen by the wayside, I still have a special place in my heart for books that truly test the limits of fiction with style and absurdity, like the masterful Hitchhiker’s Guide. In this vein, Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is one of the most recent additions to my library, and a phenomenal read. It’s not quite magical realism or fantasy, because it doesn’t contain anything that couldn’t physically happen in our world, but definitely includes plot points that set it apart from mere contemporary fiction (I mean, how many other books about South Africa’s nuclear arms development include the king of Sweden being kidnapped in the back of a potato truck with a bomb and a twin, neither of which officially exist?). But I could believe every word of it, because it was the sort of book where I wanted the delightful characters (and even the irritating ones) to be real.
The eponymous girl, Nombeko, is definitely going on my list of Heroines I Want To Be When I Grow Up. She reads everything she can get her hands on and actively seeks out knowledge about anything and everything. This intelligence serves her well, whether it’s letting a bumbling engineer think he’s running things or negotiating a nuclear arms exchange with two agents who want to kill her. In confrontations, she behaves exactly as I always pretended I would: shrugs and pours the bad guy some tea, thoroughly discomfiting him. Nombeko is also snarky, compassionate, and hardworking. She’s not perfect, of course, but her distrust of happiness is not only understandable, it made me relate to her more. She is unwilling to make plans for the future, no matter how much she and her companions want them, until their current problem (the itty bitty matter of the bomb in the potato truck) is solved; Nombeko does not skip ahead.
Though I obviously took its representation of historical events with a grain of salt, I also enjoyed the way the book expanded my cultural horizons. Nombeko is born in a slum in South Africa, a country I know almost nothing about. Her adventures bring her (and the reader) into contact with such people as the prime minister, an ambassador from China, and engineers in charge of building nuclear bombs for South Africa. The book spans some thirty years, touching on events I’ve heard of but never really learned about, and describing international relationships I had never considered before. Recently I’ve realized how Eurocentric my reading tends to be (especially given my penchant for old English novels and the depths of academic English literature), which has left me with a disproportionate understanding of world cultures, so fiction like this might be a good way to start learning more.
I gasped, laughed, and mumbled, “Nonononono” – causing the Engineer a little concern. An excellent book, from style to character development to plot.
5/5 stars on Goodreads
Have you read this? Share your thoughts! Or go read it and tell me what you think!