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The Merman

by Carl-Johan Vallgren

Nella, the narrator of this extraordinary Swedish novel, warns us in the first sentence 'There is no beginning and no ending..'. to her story. The tale she is about to tell is one of neglect and cruelty, of blighted lives which create their own tragic momentum and perverse circular logic.

Nella is the fourteen-year-old daughter of a petty criminal, himself an orphan and product of care, and an alcoholic mother. She is ostracised at school, partly we suspect because her clothes are cast-offs and probably dirty, and partly because she lives in a part of town where social services have placed their most awkward customers. Yet, despite everything, she is clever, industrious, resourceful and kind and looks after her younger brother, Robert, as if she were his mother.

Robert's problems are manifold but stem mainly from his poor eyesight. As it went uncorrected from early childhood, his poor vision hindered his progress at school and, when he finally got spectacles, they were large and ugly and held together with tape. He is a magnet for school bullies and not even Nella's fierce protection can keep him safe from sadistic treatment by the psychopath, Gerard, and his henchmen.

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Polly Toynbee pointed out the irony of the "sugar-coated sympathy" people feel for fictional unfortunates (she cited Charlie Bucket from CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY as an example) and their strong impulse to blame and punish real-life poor people: a tendency fuelled by the right-wing press in their condemnation of 'benefit-scroungers' and the polarisation of 'hard-working people' and the 'undeserving' poor. Toynbee talks about the universal myth, typical of Disney and Hollywood, where the poor get their just rewards and the rich their comeuppance. However, although in many ways THE MERMAN is a modern fable, there is no happy ending for this greatly disadvantaged heroine. As in life, actions and reactions are complex; nothing is morally simple; and no one is blameless. And perhaps more realistic depictions, like this, of people who have fallen on hard times and the often unavoidable causes and corrosive effects of poverty, might make it less easy for the reader to compartmentalize their reactions into affection for the fictional impoverished and blame for the real-life poor.

THE MERMAN is a powerful and moving story and, although shocking and sometimes grim, it is lifted by the wonderfully engaging character of Nella and some luminous descriptions, especially of the merman - a sea monster with a sting in his tail. It is a compelling read with enough meat to keep book groups discussing late into the night.

Published by Hesperus Press Ltd, 288pp.

Clare Chandler

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