The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Jonas Jonasson’s first book, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, was published to critical and commercial success in 2009, and his new book adopts a similarly quirky bent. The story centres on a young woman, Nombeko Mayeki, who grows up in South Africa and is forced to fend for herself from an early age. After a series of family tragedies, she finds herself working for a sanitation company cleaning people’s latrines. By the age of 13, she is running the entire facility due to her sharp mathematical brain and general quick wittedness. She soon chances upon Thabo, a trickster with an extensive library, who teaches her to read – an apology, of sorts, for earlier trying to accost her. Nombeko’s fortunes continue to ebb and flow. She comes into the possession of millions of smuggled diamonds, which she keeps hidden from the unscrupulous nuclear engineer she is forced to work for in exchange for room and board, which is just her lot, this being South Africa in the mid-1970s. Through more exceptional events, she is able to flee to Sweden, taking with her important national secrets and great wealth, eventually finding herself in the company of the King of Sweden.

Jonasson’s book is fantastical, like Catch-22 or a Terry Gilliam film. It includes a larger-than-life cast of characters, including Swedish twins boys named Holger One and Holger Two, and three Chinese–South African sisters with brilliant art forgery skills and a penchant for poisoning. This novel is well written and well observed; I was blown away.

Michael Awosoga-Samuel is a bookseller and music specialist at Readings Carlton.