Book Review: The Merman, Carl-Johan Vallgren (2015)

December 7th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“Fairy tales with tragic endings.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including bullying, sexual violence, and animal abuse, as well as offensive language.)

There is no beginning, and no ending. I know that now. For others, perhaps, there are stories that lead somewhere, but not for me. It’s like they go round in circles, and sometimes not even that: they just stand still in one place. And I wonder: what are you supposed to do with a story that repeats itself?

“There’s not much that’s been written about mermaids, you see. Mainly fairy tales with tragic endings.”

Petronella’s life is a lot like a fairy tale. Not the ending, when the lowly peasant girl has found her prince, the heroine has slayed the dragon, and everyone is free to live happily ever after for the rest of their days. Rather, Nella is the beginning; the nightmare that comes before the daydream. The raw truth that lurks under the Disneyfied facade, fangs and claws bared.

Nella’s is a family of three, occasionally four. She and her younger brother Robert live with their mother Marika in a maisonette (apartment) on Liljevägen in Falkenberg, Sweden; her housing is largely regarded as “a sort of slum where social service cases live.” An unemployed alcoholic, Marika is a neglectful mother at best. Her mom is more likely to spend the family’s public assistance funds on booze than food, forcing Nella into shoplifting to make up the difference. Sometimes the free lunch at school is the only meal Nella and Robert will see in a day; oftentimes it’s the one and only reason they bother to show up at all. That, and to get out of the house: no matter how much Nella tidies up, it’s not long before hurricane Marika sweeps through, leaving mess of dishes and vomit in her wake.

Dad’s even worse, with an erratic disposition, sketchy friends, criminal endeavors, and his own addictions. Lucky for Nella and Robert, Jonas has been away for most of the past year, serving time for possession of narcotics. The bad news: he’s set to be released in a matter of weeks.

As if Nella doesn’t have her hands full with managing the household, there’s also Robert to worry about. Whereas the kids at school mostly just shun Nella, pretending that the stick-thin girl with dirty clothes and unwashed hair doesn’t exist, Robert is the target of vicious and unrelenting bullying. Robert has a learning disorder that was only exacerbated by problems with his vision, which long went undiagnosed. Now he wears coke-bottle glasses (that have been broken and taped back together who knows how many times), and tends to wet his pants when scared. Which is often: the kids call him names, break his few possessions, spit on him, and nail him with snowballs.

Yet as cruel as his own peers can be, their bullying is downright quaint next to the treatment Robert receives from Nella’s classmates. When the Ninth Year psychopath Gerard becomes convinced that Nella snitched on him for dousing a kitten in petrol and lighting her on fire, he decides to make her pay – through Robert. Gerard and his “trailers” drag Robert into the woods behind school, shoving grass into his mouth and pine needles down his pants. When Nella tries to intervene, they sexually assault her with a pine cone. She attempts to pay Gerard off with a thousand kronar, but all attempts at buying peace predictably backfire: he’s simply having too much fun tormenting Nella to stop.

Already suspicious of adults – one of Nella and Robert’s greatest fears is being separated by social services – going to the authorities is out of the question: even some of the adults are terrified of Gerard.

Nella turns to her friend Tommy for help, but he’s got his own secrets. Lately he’s been preoccupied, guarded, and mysteriously absent from school. When Nella decides to tail him and find out why, she stumbles upon a creature that shouldn’t exist: a merman, kept drugged and chained in Tommy’s family’s fishing hut. He’s in a bad way, and not just because of the initial trauma of being caught in a trawling net and hauled onto the boat with a fishing hook; his injuries are extensive and varied. Clearly someone – many someones – have been abusing him, repeatedly. The two teenagers must race against the clock – and the baser instincts of humankind – to save him.

The Merman is not an easy read. It’s grim, violent, and depressing, with an ending that’s neither happy nor satisfying. While I didn’t expect everything to come up roses – how can it when your mom’s an alcoholic and your dad’s an abusive drug trafficker? – I was hoping for a marginally better outcome. For all the violence the audience is forced to witness, I feel like we deserve a bigger payoff. What we get is perhaps realistic, but unbearably bleak.

The narrative is confused and jumbled in places. Several times I had to go back and reread certain passages, though this didn’t always help me sort things out. It’s difficult to tell if this is an issue inherent in the original text, or if it arose in the English translation. Either way, the book could definitely use another round of editing, especially copyediting. The text is rife with missing and incorrect punctuation; missing periods, or commas where there should be periods, resulting in a mess on run-on sentences. Quotation marks are single, not double, and not all of the pairs are complete, making it especially difficult to follow conversations between characters. Even names seem to change: the Professor is alternately referred to as Lazlo and Lazio. (I checked Wikipedia, but the latter doesn’t seem to a derivative of the former.) To be fair, I read an ARC; hopefully most (if not all) of these issues will be fixed in the finished copy.

I deducted a star each for the ending and many errors – which I normally disregard in ARCs, but were so extensive here that they couldn’t be ignored.

That said, I did enjoy the story overall. I read it in one day, which is unusual for me. Despite the frustrations, I was captivated by the intertwined plights of Nella and the merman. For Nella, the merman offered a chance to redeem herself: while she was unable to do anything to help the poor kitten – she even tried to turn her back on the whole scene (“I did not want to become a witness to something I would be sorry for.”) – she might have a shot at rescuing the merman from his abusers and releasing him back into the sea. And though it may cost Nella her life – the men holding the merman captive are not people to be trifled with – she’s unwilling to stand by and watch as another act of violence unfolds. Like her classmates did, when Gerard and his cronies kidnapped Robert into the darkness of the forest.

In The Merman, we see how various forms of violence are intertwined, how they feed into and influence one another. When Robert – her sweet little brother – declares that he’d like to toss Gerard down a well and subject him to all the indignities Gerard visited upon him, Nella is shocked: she’d never before seen her brother lust for revenge. Gerard’s murder of the kitten wasn’t the first time he harmed an animal (of the human or nonhuman variety), nor would it be his last; his violence simply continues to escalate, unchecked.

Jonas’s father beat him, and he went on to mistreat his own children, his wife – and the merman. Nella recounts one of her father’s old jobs, down at the mink farm, and how employment kept him sober…mostly. On skinning day, everyone got shit-faced: “to endure the blood and the smell of flayed animal carcasses.” And fear, which Nella senses as she crosses the killing room floor, littered with hundreds of mink paws.

I found it especially poignant that the merman’s suffering takes place against the backdrop of so much animal exploitation and abuse: first in the brothers’ fishing hut, and later at the mink farm. “I couldn’t comprehend where all that hate came from, the desire to harm him. He was totally defenceless. But maybe that’s exactly what attracted them. The knowledge that there wouldn’t be any consequences.” Violence begets violence begets violence.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Nella and her brother Robert live in poverty. Mom Marika is an alcoholic who’s likely to spend the family’s public assistance on booze over food, clothing, and school supplies. Oftentimes the only meal the kids eat in a day is the school’s free lunch. Otherwise, Nella resorts to shoplifting to feed herself and Robert.

While their mom is neglectful, dad Jonas is abusive. He hits Marika on one occasion and bullies his kids frequently. He breaks Robert’s free-from-the-nurse, taped-together, coke-bottle glasses and gives him a new pair of reading glasses, which he insists the boy wear – never mind that they aren’t the right prescription. Dad’s also an alcoholic, as well as a drug dealer. When we first meet him, Jonas has just been released from a one-year stint in jail for possession of narcotics. Jonas reports that his father hit him, thus hinting at the generational cycle of domestic violence.

Mom and dad frequently let strange men crash at their house. At least one propositioned Nella – who’s just 15 – and she says that she often feels them leering at her, undressing her with their eyes. When in need of money, Nella briefly considers turning to sex work.

Whereas Nella is mostly ignored, Robert is the constant target of bullies, with his ugly glasses, eczema, learning disorder, and tendency to wet his pants when scared. Kids call him names, spit on him, and hit him with snowballs. Things escalate even further when Gerard – who thinks Nella is a snitch – and his cronies set their sights on Robert. They sexually assault both Robert and Nella, pulling their pants down and (in Nella’s case) attempting to shove a pine cone inside her rectum.

Nella’s friend the Professor (Lazlo) was in a car accident that broke both his legs. He’ll have to walk with crutches for the rest of his life.

The book is rife with offensive (but context-appropriate) language: bitch, cunt, retard, cripple, mong, Jew, kunta kinte, and (of course) the n-word. Various forms of violence – animal abuse, domestic violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. – are shown as interconnected: all pieces of the same puzzle.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes. Though not human, Nella and Tommy risk their lives to save the titular merman. Throughout the text, the author links his suffering to other forms of animal abuse: minks killed for their fur, fishes killed for food, wild animals killed and made into taxidermy displays. And of course there’s Gerard, the town psychopath, who begins his reign of terror on nonhuman animals: kittens, foals, and cows. Though Nella never explicitly renounces the industrialized exploitation of animals, she recoils at the reality of it (gagging on the kill floor, for example).


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