Fractured fairy tale

Seemingly simple story a troubling meditation on mental illness

Fairy tales are an easy hook for novels conveniently providing all the ready-made makings of an exciting story: the heroic quest transformative violence and a love story or two. It can also be tiresome and hackneyed trying to find meaning in modern concerns with strained stereotypical details.

Danish author Jonas Bengtsson wisely avoids making his novel A Fairy Tale into anything resembling an actual fairy tale. His seemingly simple story about a boy his father and their shared “fairy tale” eschews fantasy for a troubling meditation on mental illness. Fairy tales Bengtsson argues are dangerous things.

He sets up the story in a few short rushing sentences. It’s 1986 and a six-year-old boy watches Swedish prime minister Olof Palme assassinated on TV. The boy’s father for reasons unknown is deeply disturbed by the news. He quickly packs up their few meagre belongings and they hit the road.

The two live in the shadows the boy left to his own devices (or as it’s called “home schooling”) while dad scrapes by with a series of odd jobs. Each time the boy begins to get a sense of his surroundings dad packs up the car and they leave. Dad’s various jobs — labourer bouncer in a strip club — quickly whittle him away. It’s clear that dad isn’t well and as the boy gets older it becomes harder for him to believe his father’s maniacal warnings of the “White Men” hunting them down.

For a child living with a disturbed parent is funny until it isn’t funny anymore. With age and a little wisdom a fairy tale can become chaotic and disturbing.

Skip ahead 10 years: the boy now a teenager is graduating high school. Dad has disappeared and the boy is living a much more stable life with… well let’s avoid a spoiler and just say “new parents.”

The latter half of the novel is better — more alive less precious. It’s easy to spend 200 pages tagging along with the now-grown boy. His life is a haze of smoky drug-filled afternoons visits to grandparents lots of pizza and occasional schoolwork. He has a perfunctory and obligatory introduction to sex.

His schoolteachers are concerned for his mental health after finding paintings containing all sorts of grisly images. Painting has become his passion better to emphasize the taint of madness his father may have given him.

After learning details about his dad’s past he sets off in search of him. Well sort of — his burgeoning art career leads him to Copenhagen a European Girl With a Dragon Tattoo -looking world of cool icy darkness drugs and hookers.

Here things get more complicated. Despite a fine translation by Charlotte Barslund history invades the novel with allusions to ancient European hurts and finer details that are likely to escape a North American audience.

The novel has room for these sorts of digressions however clocking in at an unwieldy 400-plus pages.

And what about dear ol’ dad you ask? One character says it best: “He’s probably not the first to go a little peculiar from spending too much time with his head stuck in a book.”

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson published by Anansi International (416 pp.).