This book was passed on to me by a friend who liked it when she first started reading it but was more ambivalent by the time she finished. I was curious and started it that same night. I read the first two-thirds of the book fairly quickly, but then put it down and wasn’t too motivated to go back to it. I wasn’t sure why, since I enjoyed the writing style (or, I should say, the translation), the plot was fast-paced, the bizarre twists were definitely bizarre but still had internal consistency, the politics involved were interesting, and the characters were entertaining.
On the other hand, those entertaining characters were quite one-dimensional, with very little internal life, and very simple motivations. The politics were deadly serious, and treated with some (at times) hilarious satire, but somehow didn’t have as much impact as I would have liked. The weird and quirky plot twisted and turned all over the place but, given the simplicity of the characters, was also strangely predictable—not so much in the details of what would happen next, but in the overall arc of the story.
So even though the book was enjoyable, after a while it felt rather monotonous. The funny parts were all funny in the same ways, and the more serious parts were all described with the same detached irony with a nod to an entertaining turn of phrase.
It was a quick read, and I think it would be a perfect “beach book” for when you’re looking for something fun and quick and light. It didn’t require much thought or engagement, although the places where it did dip into the politics of race or gender or power or identity were quite interesting, although far too brief.
The main character is a Black South African woman. In the first part of the book, when she is still in South Africa, her Blackness is a factor in her dealings with white South Africans; however, once she gets to Sweden, that is no longer the case, which struck me as rather unrealistic. Not that the book is particularly concerned with probability or actual facts, but if you’re going to bring race into it, be consistent. At the same time, this main character, Nombeko, is far and away the smartest and most practical character in the book. I liked that, but it also made me cringe a bit that a woman—especially a Black woman—was the one who was making all the plans, meeting everyone’s needs, anticipating every contingency, and basically saving everyone’s ass. Most other people in the book were basically dependent on her for their safety, livelihoods, and self-esteem.
All the characters were cis-het; there were some non-white characters and some treatment of race and racism; everyone was able-bodied and reasonably mentally healthy except for one secondary character whose mental illness was used to further the plot and get a laugh rather than being realistic in any way. Alternative politics were portrayed as fringe, and in the end, the status quo is upheld—always a disappointment for me.
So yes, the book was funny and I enjoyed it. But I won’t read it again, and I’d probably only read another book by this writer if it is given to me for free.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles