Book review: The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden

By David Hill

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Cover of The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson.
Cover of The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson.

It starts in the 1970s. An illiterate girl from a Soweto slum is crammed into a truck with a load of potatoes. Oh, and with the Swedish king and his PM as well. You'd expect that, wouldn't you? You shouldn't: our gutsy, stroppy young protagonist Nombeko calculates the odds against it happening are 45 billion to one.

Still, if you've read Jonasson's previous picaresque fantasy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window, you'll be anticipating improbabilities on most pages and impossibilities in each chapter. You won't be disappointed.

Based on the admirable assumption that girls from any background can achieve anything, the story follows the prodigiously savvy Nombeko from the age of 5, when she starts work as a latrine emptier, through to 14, when she's running the company, and right up to the present decade.

The fickle fingers of fate flick her across several continents and let her solve several world problems, just as centenarian Allan Karlsson managed in The 100-Year-Old.

So we meet Nelson Mandela, the President of China, Jimmy Carter and Joseph Mobutu, plus the aforementioned Scandinavian dignitaries.

Twenty pounds of antelope meat feature. So do a few Rembrandts, an oversized statue of Lenin, two Mossad agents and some diamond dentures. Did I mention the missing South African nuclear bomb?

People are tossed to all points of the compass. Some are tossed out of helicopters.

Others (who all deserve it) are casually killed off via knife, gun, paint-thinner or ventricular fibrillation. It's the sort of plot where characters plummet through a roof, flog off Han pottery, move into a manor house.

We meet a cavalcade of caricatures: a boozed bomb-maker, a deranged United States deserter, a criminal bibliophile, a regicide-raising nutter, a trio of Oriental art forgers-cum poisoners. Everyone is sub-human or superhuman, and after a while you do start to wish there was someone ... well, ordinary, to relate to.

The lowly look good, the mighty and the bureaucratic often look silly, the bigoted emphatically look ugly.

It's inventive, fluffily benign and enjoyably subversive. No nice people are harmed in the making of the narrative.

It also becomes pretty formulaic and repetitive. The second half in particular resembles a good short story stretched into a novel. You'll pass it on to friends - and won't worry too much if you don't get it back.

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson (Fourth Estate $33.99).

- NZ Herald

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