My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A bizarre blend of humour and historical fiction, Jonas Jonasson’s novel is laugh-out-loud funny.
A girl, born in the slums of South Africa during apartheid ends up saving the life of the King of Sweden, is the straightforward plot, as described in the absurdly long title. But the joy of this novel is in how on earth she ends up in a position to do so, with each twist in her tale more unlikely than the next.
This book covers so much history, from the lineage of the Swedish monarchy, to colonialism in Africa, politics and racism in South Africa both during and post-Apartheid, the rise of China as a global power, and the history and movement of nuclear weapons in the 20th and 21st century. It also dabbles in representations of PTSD, art forgery and how to outsmart Israel’s Mossad.
In covering so many different topics and weaving historical fact with fiction the novel is occasionally a baffling read, with so many references to different events, only about half of which I was intimately acquainted with. Despite occasionally feeling lost in the whirlwind of content the humour really carried the story for me. The plot is truly absurd, and the intricate way in which all the scenes and characters combine to create hilariously ludicrous situations is impossible to unravel as the build upon eachother from the very first page.
The main character is both likeable and incredibly frustrating to read about. Because of the style, heavily laden with humour as it is, the emotional growth of our heroine happens at a distance. By the end of the book she is well into middle age, and yet I found it hard to stop thinking of her as a remarkably prescient child. One who thought things like this:
“She looked around and said, ‘What am I doing here?’ At the same time, she realised that she did not have any immediate alternatives. Ten-year-old illiterates were not the prime candidates on the South African job market.”
The book savagely mocks the elites of society, organised religion and fanatics of all kinds. Some of my favourite moments where those that laced tragic reality with humour, such as these two:
“The engineer had never seen the point in studying mathematics. Or anything else. Luckily enough, he had still received top grades at the university to which his father was the foremost donor.”
“Pastors and lay missionaries streamed in to save the Basotho people from evil. They brought with them Bibles, automatic weapons and the occasional land mine.”
But my favourite quote of them all has to be the one semi-serious moment that I pulled from the chaos:
“There was something pleasant about books, about their very existence.”
Overall I really enjoyed The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, though perhaps not quite as much as The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared. The extended timescale and difficulty in forming an emotional connection with any of the characters is what held me back in this instance. However if you, like me, have an interest in international relations, class politics and revolutionary zeal you might just enjoy this one as much as I did.
Suitable for teen and up, though targeted at adult audiences.