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Havsmannen Carl-Johan Vallgren, Havsmannen (The Merman)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2012.

Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2012:2

Review Section: Adult Fiction

The inspiration for this grim novel without mercy is the dangerous and mysterious sea, its constant presence and pervasive smell along the western coast of Sweden with its fishing communities and mink farms. The setting is near the town of Falkenberg in the autumn of the early 1980s, when Vallgren himself grew up there. It is a black fairy tale of The Beauty and the Beast type: echoing a well-known theme in Swedish folklore, a young girl meets a creature from another world, a merman from the depths of the sea, the male equivalent of the better known mermaid.

At times I found it almost unbearably hard to read; I put the book down more than once because of the blood-curdling brutality meted out to defenceless living creatures, animals as well as humans, just because they were weak, helpless, crippled and different from the norm. Amid the sadistic bullying in a secondary school that no adult seems to notice, fantasy enters in the shape of the merman, inadvertently caught in fishermen’s nets. He causes panic on board, being the size of a small whale; his captors do not manage to return him to the sea and try in vain to kill him off in various barbaric ways, but he is strong, dangerous and seemingly indestructible.

Fifteen-year-old Nella is the first-person narrator; together with her little brother Robert, two-and-a half years her junior, she lives on a run-down council estate with their alcoholic mother and jailbird father, who is part of a network of criminal associates. It is Nella, bright and resourceful, who sees to it that things work at home: she cleans, cooks (if there is any money to buy food) and comforts her little brother. Contacts with their grandparents were severed long before they were born; she has grown up with a suspicion of all adults. The picture is one of complete social destitution; the burden she has to carry is unimaginably heavy for a compassionate young girl. The most important person in Nella’s life is her little brother who was born prematurely, is severely short-sighted and has special educational needs. She loves him unconditionally and will do anything to protect him from the heartless bullies at school. The bullying gets more sadistic when a gang of three boys from Nella’s year takes over: in the end Robert avoids going to school at all, not even for his only hot meal of the day. The worst of his tormentors is Gerard, who seems capable of anything. In desperation Nella promises to pay him one thousand kronor to leave Robert alone. Time is running out and Gerard keeps moving the goalposts at will in his usual sadistic way. Nella does not know which way to turn in order to keep Robert and herself safe.

Then something extraordinary happens: together with a friend and classmate, Nella meets the merman. She is horrified by his brutal treatment at the hands of his captors and his suffering. In the end they manage to take him to a safe place and nurse him back to health; before long they should be able to return him to the sea where he came from. To her amazement Nella discovers that the merman can communicate with her: through some kind of telepathy his thoughts find their way deep into her mind, and he seems to know exactly what she is thinking. He gives her peace and hope, and assures her that all will turn out right in the end. Thanks to Gerard’s actions things escalate relentlessly into an apocalyptic finale of flames and a crushing landslide in the place where the merman is kept. He saves Robert’s life, but he himself perishes in the raging inferno after executing just retribution.

Half a year after what happened that previous autumn, Nella’s life is very much different, and so is Robert’s. Thoughts of the merman give her comfort; she is grateful that she met him and got to know him: ‘I saw the smile in his eyes, his large dark eyes, his gill-covers, claws and powerful tail-fin... and I knew that those images would be etched in me for the rest of my life.’ With its painfully detailed descriptions and matter-of-fact narrative, the powerful mixture of fantasy and grim social realism works well in this haunting novel about — but not necessarily for — young people.

Also by Carl-Johan Vallgren

Other reviews by Birgitta Thompson

Other reviews in SBR 2012:2

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