Carl-Johan Vallgren’s merman sits, tonally, directly across from Disney’s Ariel. They have nothing in common except the tail of a fish. His riveting newly translated novel, “The Merman,” aligns more with his Scandinavian predecessor Hans Christian Andersen, whose mermaid felt as though she were walking on knives and died. Andersen was not afraid to put her through great pain and to redeem her in ways unexpected, and Vallgren’s hero, an adolescent girl named Nella, shares some similar heights and lows.
As Nella tells us, “For others, perhaps, there are stories that lead somewhere, but not for me.” The novel is hardly static, though. It sweeps a reader to many places, with strong momentum, but hers is a story that will not necessarily resolve, or else the resolutions offered can’t fully whisk away the darkness built powerfully throughout the book.
Nella is the type of teenager who shoulders the weight of everything. She is single-handedly taking care of her persecuted brother, trying to ward off a psychopathic bully at school, tending to an ill older professor friend and seeing with clear eyes the myriad failures of her parents. All this is drawn by Vallgren without apology or any interest in softening.
The adults around her don’t help. Her father is in prison; when he comes out, he brings friends who are terrifying. Her mother dances drunk while her father harasses her brother about his broken glasses. At school, even the administrators fear the bullies, and for good reason.
But, for all that, this is not a relentlessly bleak book. At a point of desperation, Nella comes into contact with a sea creature she has never seen before, one chained in a hut, and the story line turns from the trap of middle school into something more mysterious, frightening and beautiful. The presence of this merman becomes a study in textures more than content. Of course, a merman calls attention to himself on the page, but the magic weaves seamlessly into the tone of the story. There is nothing fanciful about this merman and his existence. He is as rugged and tangible as a great caught fish. “Its joints faced the other way, and there was webbing between its fingers,” Vallgren writes. “There were sort of nails too, or rather claws, blue-black in colour.”
One key trait of magic realism might be called a sense of proportion, in that the magic fits in the daily world; it is not exaggerated, or dreamy, or funny. In Gabriel García Márquez’s famous short story “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” the wings of the man teem with parasites and are as raggedy as a bird’s might be. His state as an angel is constantly undermined as a symbol for the story to work on its own terms and allow us to believe in him as real.
Vallgren’s merman comes from the same place, in that the world that created us made him, too, this muscular creature of gills, lungs and terrible vulnerability. And the grit of Nella’s daily life has room for a merman such as this, who is stored for a while on, of all things, a mink farm. To be clear, this is not a sweet little mink farm but one shown with equal physical immediacy and horror: the stench of death, animal carcasses, cages and machines. Underneath the whole book, without ever being stated outright, is a strong treatise against animal cruelty.
One of the key ways Vallgren achieves this sense of proportion is through Nella’s perspective. She is intensely perceptive, in both the regular world and its magic counterpart. Vallgren captures a child’s razor-sharp intuition about a parent’s changing mood, but he extends this to her awareness of the merman as well. When they are in the same room, Nella tunes into his thinking: “Every day since they’d caught him and kept him locked up, he had sensed the closeness of the sea. . . . That’s where we would take him, he knew that. But how would we do it with all this gravity pulling on us, pulling on him, pressing us down to the ground all the time.”
The clear-eyed quality of this book is a strength, but at times the cruelty feels almost ruminative, in that the torment from the kids at school hits similar awful notes, although these do give forth to plot points. The villains can seem too insistently villainous for such a nuanced world.
But more than plot, what distinguishes the novel is this sense of differing textures. The merman, for all his realness, offers a touch of the sublime. His magnificence will not save Nella, at least not in a way we can easily know. There’s a trembling beauty to the darkness in this book and how it views hope: without redemption in a way we might recognize, but something else all its own, a state of mind that Andersen — and his seafoam — surely would have appreciated.
Aimee Bender’s most recent book is “The Color Master.”
By Carl-Johan Vallgren
Translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn
Pegasus. 232 pp. $24.95