Book review: A Fairy Tale

By David Hill

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A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson

The Danish writer's third novel is a chronicle of devoted, damaged love. It starts in 1986.

Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme has just been shot dead. The trauma sends a father and his 7-year-old son into flight and hiding. They're nameless. They're also rootless, enigmatic, live an existence pared to the bone, scavenging, stealing and evading authorities. Shadows of some imminent, unspecified terror loom around them. You're reminded inevitably of Cormac McCarthy's gaunt, magnificent The Road.

In spite of their deprivations, the two are rich in skills, both feral and intellectual. The man teaches his son Latin, instructs him in a Christ-like compassion towards the fallen.

The boy reads voraciously, draws, shapes wood. He learns how to listen; "watches what everything means".

All the while, his father relates the fable of a sinister White Queen and her retinue as they try to find and kill an avenging king and prince, who become emblems of the concealed pair.

A cast of unsettling characters swirls around them. A "friend" instructs the son in random acts of unkindness and coprophilia. A boss slumps into predatory foulness; a woman politician's speech shatters into screams.

There's an abrupt, appalling flare of violence, and suddenly it's a decade later. The boy, now called Peter, lives with his mother and stepfather. He's drawing images of bestiality and perversion, pushing himself to limits. Other people get hurt.

Peter tries and fails to learn conventional roles; then tries to lose himself. In another metamorphosis, he alters his name once again, then repeatedly changes his home. Drugs, booze and cigarettes are consumed in over-abundance. During a narrative full of collateral damage, he's also lacerated, before a final, virtuoso scene of revenge and reconciliation.

You have to abandon yourself to the plot's riddles and enigmas, the revelations that lead to further puzzles. It's runic to the point of being irritating. The style is spare and remote; the plot slides through short, semi-connected episodes that drift into symbols and dreams.

There's an incipient smugness in the contempt for mainstream life: "Most people are too scared to open their eyes."

The young protagonist (and the reader) are lectured a lot.

But Bengtsson makes a powerful plea for those who can't belong, who live "like something that has been cut away, that isn't needed". His story is singular, rich, challenging, full of gravitas.

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson (Scribe $37).

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- NZ Herald

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