THE MERMAN. By Carl-Johan Vallgren. Pegasus Books. 232 pages. $24.95
At the beginning of “The Merman,” readers are promised that things will get better.
The narrator, 15-year-old Nella, tells stories to her younger brother Robert to “take him to a place where everything was far better.”
The book kicks off with Nella sprinting through the woods, running from the school bully Gerald and his gang who’ve set fire to a kitten. Yes, a kitten. School is not safe. Home is not safe. There is no safe place for Nella and Robert, whose father is in jail and whose mother is a drunk.
Set in 1983 in a small fishing village on the coast of Sweden, where the kids roam free and the adults are dangerously useless, this dark tale is reminiscent of “The Lord of the Flies.”
Originally published in 1988 by Swedish author Carl-Johan Vallgren, “The Merman” was translated into English this year. Vallgren grew up with classic Nordic fairy tales that transitioned from dark to light, but says he wanted to create a modern day tale where characters don’t always live happily ever after.
Nella’s and Robert’s story is difficult to read. The author has given us big-hearted, clever characters whose suffering breaks our hearts. We don’t want to believe there are bullies like Gerald. We don’t want to believe that children are forced to clean up their mother’s vomit after a night of drinking, or that a father will break his child’s eyeglasses, leaving him nearly blind. We want to think that good will prevail over evil, but Vallgren’s story makes us open our eyes to a more disturbing possibility.
His evocative descriptions of fear, pain, hunger, shame and wonder create an added charge to each scene, and we can’t look away. Nella believes she was born to protect her brother, who is bullied mercilessly at school: “Because of his glasses, because of his squint, because he was poor at reading and writing but was really as clever as anybody else, because of the eczema on his hands, and because he couldn’t hold in his pee when they ganged up on him.”
Nella functions as the parent. She cooks their meals (when they have food in the house), cuts his hair, helps him with homework, washes his clothes and fixes her brother’s glasses with tape.
“I was the only person in the world he trusted, because I was his big sister and two years older, and there was nothing else that could help him.”
Nella’s only friends are a quiet classmate named Tommy and a paraplegic professor who sometimes offers her food when her pantry at home is bare. “Is the fridge empty again?” the professor asks nonjudgmentally, giving Nella his dinner.
We know from the title of the book that there is more to this story, and magic realism slips its way in when things are at their bleakest. Tommy’s older brothers accidentally capture a sea creature while fishing outside their jurisdiction and hide it from the community for fear of being caught. Tommy sneaks Nella into the creature’s hiding place. “It’s face was unlike anything I’d ever seen: half fish, half mammal.”
A sliver of hope opens up for Nella when she encounters the merman who seems to read her thoughts. That night she sits on her brother’s bed and tells him a story but her mind is elsewhere. “Mermaids had never existed. And no mermen, either. Only in legends and people’s imaginations. And yet he was there in Tommy’s hut. Just as surely as my brother was sitting in front of me.” The merman has been brutalized by the brothers, and Nella and Tommy decide to help him escape.
There is no happy ever after for Nella and her brother. This is no fairy tale. This book is about the most vulnerable among us, the possibility of extraordinary events and the endurance of hope.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.