Carl-Johan Vallgren's The Merman, translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn, concerns the realistic and heartbreaking circumstances of teenaged Nella and her little brother, Robert; at the same time, it is a dark fairy tale about a mythical creature from the deep and the possibility of resisting evil.
Nella and Robert's parents are terribly incompetent, uncaring people, more focused on drinking and crime than their children's welfare. Robert struggles with learning disabilities and is bullied at school; protecting him, getting him the glasses he needs, and his general well-being falls to his sister. Nella is hard-pressed to handle the responsibilities of the household, including cleaning up after her alcoholic mother, about whom she muses, "it was about as hard to judge her as it was to understand her." This mature and nuanced observation is typical of a girl who, despite her own troubles, seems drawn to others who need her help, such as a disabled man who is one of her few friends.
When the neighborhood bullies begin to threaten Robert with violence, Nella turns to her only ally at school, a boy named Tommy. But contact with Tommy's brothers presents a new difficulty. They have pulled a mystical being from the ocean, whose otherworldly nature and wordless communication will change everything Nella understands about her life. All at once, Nella struggles with the bullies' extortion and Robert's fear; their father is released from prison and brings criminals home with him to disrupt their fragile household; their mother threatens to leave; and the sea creature looks to Nella for help. A burdened but strong and compassionate young woman, she will learn and grow through these tests, and wins the reader's heart by the time her story reaches the final, hard decisions.
Nella is a compelling protagonist, reminiscent of Roald Dahl's Matilda in her miserable circumstances, but with a harder, more adult edge. Robert's suffering is almost unbearable, but sadly realistic. In Ellen Flynn's translation of Vallgren's tale, dialogue can be a bit stiff and formal, especially in the children's cases, but overall she establishes a tone appropriate to the balance of reality and mysticism in Nella's story, and the stark ugliness of her life. Vallgren evokes his fantasy element with wonder and detail; The Merman is a singular story. Fans of adult fairy tales and bleak realism will be haunted and enthralled by this novel of human tragedies, and the mystery of what lies beyond. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Shelf Talker: In this grown-up fairy tale, a young women's battles with poverty, violence and neglect are further complicated when a mystical creature enters her life.