My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Charmingly quirky romp. Though perhaps the romp lasted a little too long with a few too many twists. But in the end, did the story really matter? Or was it how the story was told?
I admit it was nice to read an immigrant story and be able to laugh a little. Though I was not totally without the heavy feeling of how we, in the West, fail the rest of the world while I read, Jonasson presented the despair through a lens of Scarlett OHara-ness; tomorrow is another day. When the poor black South African women kill a poor black South African man in Soweto, Jonasson writes, "The women were seized and transformed into a thirty-year cost item in the South African correctional system." When the 10 year-old girl starts to come into what will have to pass as her own in a hopeless world, Jonasson writes, "As Nombeko got older, she was able to empty more latrine barrels each day, and the money was enough to buy more than just thinner. Thus her mom could supplement the solvent with pills and liquor. But the girl, who realized that things couldn't go on this way, told her mother that she had to choose between quitting or dying. Her mom nodded in understanding. The funeral was well attended." Hopeless. But not without hope. Thanks for that, at least.
The gist of the book and its quirk can be best summarized in a summary Jonasson kindly provides about a third of the way through what passes as a story. "A condemned building gets its name because it should be and will be torn down. Only in exceptional cases do people reside in condemned buildings. So one could say that it was noteworthy that a single condemned building in Gnest, Sormland, now housed the following: one American potter, two very similar and dissimilar brothers, one angry young woman, one escaped South African refugee, and three Chinese girls with poor judgment. All of these people found themselves in nuclear-weapons-free Sweden. Right next door to a three-megaton atomic bomb."
Jonasson twists Nombeko's story with real history, tossing in real people like pepper in a thick stew. He turns his humorous cynicism in all directions and makes fun of just about everything. Take the 2000 election in the US; "An exciting followup to this event was the many ups and downs when the most developed country in the world made such a mess of its own presidential election that it took several weeks for the Supreme Court to decide 5-4 that the candidate with the most votes had lost. With this, George W. Bush became the president of the United States, while Al Gore was reduced to an environmental agitator whom not even the anarchists in Stockholm paid much attention to. Incidentally, Bush later invaded Iraq in order to eliminate all the weapons Saddam Hussein didn't have."
Or the idea of divine right of kings; "It all started when his father was shot at the Royal Opera House. The king's son had two weeks to get used to his new role while his dad lay there dying. This turned out to be far too little time. In addition, his father had succeeded in hammering into the boy that the Swedish king was given his post by the grace of God and that the king and God worked as a team. A person who feels the Lord watching over him finds it to be a minor thing to go to war in order to defeat both the emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander--all at once. Unfortunately, the emperor and czar also claimed to have divine protection and acted accordingly. Assuming they were all correct, God had promised a little too much in too many directions at the same time. All the Lord could do about that was to let their true relative strengths settle the matter."
Equal opportunity lampooning. Kind of like the Daily Show, woven into fictional historical biography. And without Jon Stewart's mugging for the camera.
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