Like the ‘difficult second album’ effect that plagues so many successful bands, some authors face a tricky decision when writing their second novel – do they branch out and try something totally different from their successful first novel, or try to recapture what worked so well and stick to formula? In his follow up to the hugely successful ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’, Swedish author Jonas Jonasson has stuck pretty close to the formula that resulted in the delightfully absurd ‘Hundred Year Old Man…’ but just about manages not to simply repeat himself.
This time round while there is essentially one main character – Nombeko, the ‘Girl Who…’ of the title – the cast of leading characters is expanded somewhat compared to Jonasson’s debut. In place of Alan Karlsson and the flashbacks to his eventful life, here we have Nombeko’s life in South Africa interspersed with cuts to Sweden to follow a separate chain of events which eventually joins up with Nombeko and her path, and gives a bit of context to her part of the story. Much like Alan Karlsson, Nombeko is a well-drawn, really quite fascinating character who overcomes some challenging hurdles in the course of her life. Jonasson’s skill with these characters is to imbue their utterly preposterous journeys and lives with just enough realism to make the reader feel that somehow these bizarre events could actually happen, while maintaining a breakneck pace that keeps us turning the page and keen to see what’s coming next.
Over the course of the novel we see the hardwired, institutionalised racism of apartheid, the creation of the atom bomb in South Africa (aided of course by our heroine), the far-reaching influence of the Mossad, and the changing politics of Sweden. We get close escapes, death-defying leaps, identity crises and royal kidnappings. Essentially we have the ingredients for a messy, rambling, bizarre cocktail of nonsense…but what we end up with is a touching, fascinating, smile-inducing story that works because of its ridiculous nature and the fact that it knows exactly how silly it is. Yes, it’s obviously from the same author as ‘The Hundred Year Old Man…’ and no, it isn’t quite as good as that book. It is however great fun and absolutely worth reading.