The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren (Oct 2013: Hesperus Press) A teenage girl and her younger brother tough it out in a coastal town in Sweden. Mum is an alcoholic. Dad is a con. The local bully is violent sadist. Drop a mysterious catch by some local fishermen into the mix, and this whole world gets a bit brilliant.
I don’t swear that often. Mrs GBR always raises an eyebrow when I drop the F bomb. It tends to mean something nuclear has happened. Like the ketchup has run out. Or a cat has looked at me weird. Suffice to say I only bring it out for the big stuff.
I fucking loved this book.
There, you can all raise your eyebrows together with Mrs GBR, because I done gone and said it. And having said it, I should probably tell you why.
Firstly, sure, this is a book about a merman. It has a bleak setting; the hugely troubled childhoods of a social misfit and her younger brother. It has a total psychopath baddie in it. All sounds pretty original - like Scandanvaian noir meets the Brothers Grimm - but I promise you, the beauty of this book is not in its plotting.
At its core, it’s a fairly standard Cinderella story. Kid with an awful homelife, lifted by a seemingly magical occurrence, taken to within reach of a better life before it’s all put in jeopardy again… yadda yadda yadda. Don’t get me wrong, it was expertly executed. The structure hit all the right notes in all the right places, and had enough suspense to keep the pages flurrying by. And a merman is an original creature to bring in to it all, avoiding all that lazy werewolf and vampire stuff. But that aside, a lot of this is stuff you’ve heard before.
No, original plotting was not the font of this book’s power. That came from the depth and reality of this guy’s writing. It’s done in the first person, so you’re pretty engaged with the protagonist from the get go. But it’s more than just a first person voice that draws you in. Vallgren’s characters are so complete, so carefully revealed, so beautifully flawed that your heart is constantly beating out of your chest and onto the page.
It’s one of those books where you quickly forget this is all just made up. That these guys and gals exist only in Vallgren’s head. No, these are real people deserving of real empathy and real commitment. Even the freaking merman comes off as real. And when I found myself having pangs of understanding for the jerk parents, I knew I was in the presence of a ninja writer.
I’m talking myself into a 10 GBR here. Is there room to talk myself out of it? Should I bump it down to 9 because the concept and theme weren’t as original as you think? Well…
No. Reading this book was huge fun, so it deserves a huge score. The third maximum of 2013, putting this year on par with 2012, and stacking out the hall of fame a bit more. Fuck yeah.
Unfortunately (for you guys) the book isn't out until Oct. In the meantime, you can pre-order it here.