Fairy tales began as stories for adults. “They were the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of preliterate peoples,” says John Updike.
Distraction and entertainment, but years later edification and morality: the words ‘fairy tale’ mean different things in different times, to different listeners and readers.
Readers of Jonas T. Bengtsson’s novel might consider Maria Tatar’s observation, that “fairy tales are as much about conflict and violence as about enchantment and happily-ever-after endings”.
A Fairy Tale contains all of these elements, but it seems to delight in subverting expectations. There is, for instance, a locked room, but Bluebeard is nowhere near that scene. And there is also magic, but it transforms furniture not princesses.
But most disturbing of all is that evil is not always punished and, indeed, walks free, in the streets.
That is how the novel begins: “I’ve just turned six when Olaf Palme is shot.” This murder is seemingly random and senseless; it comes out of nowhere, and the crime remains unsolved even today.
A swell of emotion surrounds this event in a young boy’s memories; his father sobs openly at the news of the politician’s death in 1986 (he had been Sweden’s Prime Minister) in front of his son and announces that the two of them will likely have to move house again.
There are many ways in which readers could view this incident as a loss of innocence for this young boy. Perhaps something recognized in that moment: his first realization that a parent can be vulnerable. Maybe an understanding only acknowledged later: that his father is capable of an unexpected depth of feeling and response to violence.
As meaningful as this short scene may be, however, it lasts only a couple of pages, and readers are pulled into the daily life of this young boy and his father, who lead an itinerant and unconventional life, a duo skirting the margins and seemingly glorying in the freedom that such a lifestyle suggests.
“Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale. The story about the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.”
As the storyteller, the father creates both King and Prince (and, in time, the villains). As the listener, the boy simply receives his father’s tales and views the world aslant.
“I explore the house in stockinged feet, a new room every day. I find one full of stuffed animals, dogs and cats, beavers and squirrels. Animals with bared teeth, all of them facing whoever enters the room. They stare at me until I leave. In another room there’s only a single stuffed bison with its head facing the wall as if it’s ashamed. It’s much bigger than the doors and windows, the house must have been built around it.”
Because he does not attend school, even the spaces that the boy inhabits on a temporary basis are fully inhabited. He knows them in detail. And accepts details that an adult might question. Of one early dwelling, he notes: “The building must have shifted since it was built; it has stretched and twisted, yawned and coughed.” Later, of another building, he observes: “The outside of the house doesn’t match the rooms inside. ”
And, yet, the narrative shifts through 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1996, and 1999. The Prince no longer simply observes in silence but he begins asking questions: “I got an explanation, disjointed and child friendly. The rest is just fragments, words I’ve heard through doors left ajar.”
First he is too young, but then old enough to realize that he is missing explanations, and then he is old enough to pursue separate lines of questioning independently and, finally, he is of an age to tell his own fairy tale.
When he was a boy, he noticed: “My dad eats olives from the bag and spits out the stones. If we get lost, we can use them to retrace our steps.”
As a man, the Prince retraces his steps, by following his father’s path, assembling a narrative that challenges and subverts readers’ expectations in many ways.
The main character of Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life remarks that she was an avid reader of fairy tales when she was a girl, putting “great faith not so much in the happy ending as in the restoration of justice to the world”.
Jonas Bergtsson’s novel is this kind of tale, enchanting and horrifying.