Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – ISBN 9781443431590

Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – ISBN 9781443431590

Title: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden
Author: Jonas Jonasson
ISBN: 9781443431590
Price: $21.99
Publisher: HarperCollins

Review by Rosanna Haroutounian 

Author Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden combines eccentric characters with real life events to create a smart and entertaining adventure story.

Much like in his international bestseller, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, the plot in this story is led by an unlikely protagonist who readers will root for right from the start.

The heroine is a witty and whimsical South African woman named Nombeko Mayeki. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the nuclear arms race of the Cold War feature prominently in the backdrop of her life.

At fourteen years old, Nombeko is working to clean latrines in Soweto. To help describe her situation and the reality of life for many other black children in South Africa during the 1960s, Jonasson writes that “[t]he prime minister at the time made a name for himself by asking rhetorically why the blacks should go to school when they weren’t good for anything but carrying wood and water.”

Soon after meeting the main character, we are introduced to Ingmar Qvist, a civil servant who lives six thousand miles away from Nombeko in Södertälje, Sweden.

“It’s hard to say exactly when Ingmar lost his mind, because it snuck up on him.”

Ingmar was a monarchist and loyal fan of the King of Sweden. He goes so far as to follow the king on a trip to Nice in order to proclaim his loyalty – only to be snubbed by the monarch. Ingmar becomes a staunch republican as a result and spends the rest of his life plotting to kill the Swedish king.

The two characters never meet, but as their two stories progress simultaneously in the novel, we see how they eventually come to be connected in a way that is both unpredictable and engaging.

Thanks to the South African justice system of the day, Nombeko becomes the servant of an engineer named Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen after he runs her over in his car. Despite the incompetence of her alcoholic captor, Nombeko learns much during the years she is in his service – mostly about how to build nuclear weapons.

After more than a decade of being locked inside the Pelindaba research facility, Nombeko escapes and finds herself in a Swedish refugee camp. Thanks to a mistake made by the engineer and additional folly on the part of three Chinese sisters in charge of sending mail from the facility, Nombeko must now take care of an extra nuclear weapon constructed by the engineer – and unaccounted for by the South African government, which has just dismantled its nuclear program.

Two Israeli Mossad agents know about the bomb, however, and Nombeko fears they are on her trail.

In Sweden, she meets the twin sons of the now dead Ingmar Qvist – Holger One and Holger Two. Holger One is determined to carry on in his father’s stead and bring down the Swedish monarch with the help of his anarchist girlfriend. The much more level-headed Holger Two works to dissuade his twin brother’s revolutionary tendencies – a task made more complicated when they take in Nombeko and the atomic bomb.

Jonasson creates a plot in which every event somehow has a bearing on some later event in a way that is very intricate and unpredictable. His stories have been likened to the film Forrest Gump, in which characters are placed in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, so they are made to influence historical events in a way that makes the reader wonder, “Is that really how it happened?”

The author writes frankly about mankind’s biggest follies in a way that exposes the ironies of our supposed successes (nuclear weapons, for example). In recounting how Nombeko assesses the news of the day, he writes:

Among the more marginal news items was the one about how a former bodybuilder from Austria went and became the governor of California. Nombeko felt a twinge in her heart when she saw a picture of him in the paper, standing there with his wife and four children, smiling into the camera with white teeth. She thought that it sure was an unjust world when certain people received an excess of certain things, while others got nothing. And she didn’t even know, then, that the governor in question had managed to procure a fifth child in collaboration with his own housekeeper.

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden offers as much comic relief as it does moments of reflection on humankind’s triumphs and failures. Much like another child who grew up in South Africa – and was very much a real person and not a character in a book – Nombeko reminds us several times over not to let others define who we are. Even being in the wrong place at the wrong time may turn out all right in the end.

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