Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale, published by Other Press, examines the relationship between a father and son, and how legacies are passed down from one generation to the next. This is Bengtsson’s English language debut; however, he has previously written two award-winning novels in Danish.
Although American readers are becoming more open to reading translations — perhaps due in part to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, another Scandinavian bestseller — the University of Rochester estimates that only 3% of works published in the US are works in translation. As such, it’s particularly satisfying that Other Press pursued translation rights for this book and introduced the American and Canadian readership to a skillful author who has already gained recognition internationally.
A Fairy Tale is set in Sweden and Denmark, beginning in 1986 and continuing until 1999, following the life of a boy and his father as they live on the outskirts of society. Told from the first person perspective of the son, the reader witnesses the loving relationship between the two, even as a larger mystery unfolds — what happened in his father’s past that pushed them both to the margins?
They bounce from house to house, moving often and bringing little with them. The son does not attend school, although when he expresses the desire to go, his father becomes his teacher; they explore the Scandinavian countryside as his father expounds upon religion, Latin, and survival. The son travels alongside his father, sometimes working with him at the odd jobs he takes, and sometimes staying alone in their apartment, practicing his drawing.
There is a very light sense of the surreal in this book, as shown when the boy’s father takes a job as a landscaper for an old woman. The woman’s face is described as grotesque, the house is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, and the wild garden is an immense and utterly perilous jungle. When seen through the point of view of the son, these facts are irrefutable: the house is surely magic. However, seen from a distance, they can also be read as a child’s perception of an old woman, her strangle and cluttered house, and a wide expanse of untended land.
It’s this fealty to the experience of childhood that makes the book so refreshing and intriguing to read, as the reader must put together the “adult” version of events from the clues given by the young son’s perspective. The short chapters — most between two to five pages long — and the tightly worded sentences help create this experience, not unlike snapshots of childhood memories. We are witness to the son’s thoughts and life as he grows, and eventually comes to adulthood.
The jump in age is predicated by an unexpected violence in the son’s life. When we turn the page, we are confronted with a young adult, attempting to reconcile the memories of his father with the new knowledge gained with maturity. He takes a new name, a monotonous job, and attempts to start over; yet, he cannot escape the legacy his father left him. For the latter half of the book, we follow the son as he discovers the rest of his family and tries to piece together the kind of man his father was, and what that means for him.
A tightly written literary novel, A Fairy Tale is a fascinating study in the way each generation affects the next, and how people shape the story of their lives. It is a strong introduction to the work of Bengtsson for the English-reading audience, and a gripping story in itself.
A Fairy Tale
Other Press, April 2014
Review by Arielle Yarwood