Swedish author Carl-Johan Vallgren’s “The Merman,” translated by Ellen Flynn, mixes fairy tale with the difficult life of a girl in her mid-teens and her 12-year-old brother.
Set in 1983 Falkenberg, Sweden, the novel is told from the perspective of Nella (the sister). Her mother drinks all day, her father is in prison, and she has to care for Robert (her brother) who’s “shy and clumsy and not that bright in school.” Along with his taped-up glasses, these factors make Robert an easy target for Gerard, the school bully, and his gang.
The first third of the book moves too slowly. It’s filled with exposition and overexplanation that frequently repeats itself. Once past the difficult setup, the interesting part comes in: “Its upper body was almost human: you could see a chest and an abdomen with something that resembled a navel. But its hide consisted of armour-like scales, like the skin of a large lizard.”
Over a few pages, Vallgren uses vague description to build a mystery around the creature. However, he undermines this tension through the title — the reader already knows what the creature is.
At this point, I almost put the book down. I’m glad I didn’t.
The last two-thirds of the novel gives a blunt insight into human cruelty. Vallgren successfully creates a powerful connection between the reader and the merman. He animalizes the creature yet manages to humanize it through Nella’s sympathy.
The only qualm with the remainder of the novel rested with Gerard and his level of evilness. He came across, at times, as too two-dimensional. There didn’t appear to be much nuance to the character, but his viciousness helped to drive the tension. Sometimes his brutality reached a level that was very difficult to read but still appreciable, because it revealed the deep level of compassion the reader has for other characters.
Though he titled the novel “The Merman,” Vallgren doesn’t center the story on the creature — it’s more about empathy, sibling love and the malicious side of human nature. Even with a slow start, “The Merman” is a heart-aching novel that resonated with me on a level I did not know existed. It’s a book I strongly recommend.
“The Merman” by Carl-Johan Vallgren (234 pages; Pegasus Books; $24.95)