AlfabetaAnamma, 2003. ISBN: 9150103466
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2004:2
As the novel opens, suave, well-heeled IT executive Janne is knocked flying by a woman with a strange leopard-skin bikini and slightly hairy legs who comes hurtling into his path on a rope swing in a park. He is there to dine at the nearby restaurant with an old school friend; his taste in women is normally confined to sophisticated, immaculately-groomed female colleagues. Tarzan (real name Mariana) is bringing up two pre-school children on her own; they are having a weekend in a shared, out-of-season holiday cottage, the only break they will get. She made the bikini herself, from a bargain fabric remnant. This unlikely duo with nothing in common – except perhaps a lack of adult emotional support – feel an instant mutual attraction. Thus begins a strange, on-off relationship which initially merely reveals the gulf between them, their differences highlighted still further by the shifting of the first-person narrative between Janne, Mariana and (in appropriately childishly misspelt, ungrammatical prose) her little daughter.
Mariana has to cope with child-minding worries, with a frustrating part-time teaching job and the sort of grindingly low income that means you can’t afford the rent, or proper food for the children. Her financial and domestic predicament stems from the heartbreaking disappearance of her husband Mikael, a loving dreamer who is suffering from worsening schizophrenia and unable to cope with the practicalities of fatherhood and financial responsibility.
Loyally, she conceals this from the authorities, robbing herself of the chance to claim state benefits. Janne is meanwhile experiencing a certain pointlessness in his fast-car, designer-dating, Armani-suited lifestyle. Contact with Mariana is refreshing, but it is a shock for him to realize her poverty is not feigned. When the truth of it finally hits him, his tries to buy his way into the family’s affections with extravagant gifts of food, clothes and outings. In the chapter “I know why Father Christmas says ho ho ho”, he experiences a real adrenalin rush from bringing pleasure at such small cost to himself. But his tactic alienates Marina rather than winning her over, and she tells him to stay away; she has to teach him that she cannot be bought, and that her heart still belongs to her absent husband. She does agree to keep the mobile phone Janne gave her for emergencies, which is just as well, because Mikael returns some time later in a more deluded state than ever, threatening to harm the children, and Janne’s prompt action proves life-saving. The traumatized youngsters want to leave the flat, so Janne takes the family in, glad to sacrifice the cool perfection of his home to their friendly chaos. But Mariana makes no promises; she will have to see how things go.
Entertaining and eminently readable, this novel was for me slightly reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s undemanding social explorations in About a Boy. Katarina Mazetti gave rural deprivation and the plight of the farming community similar treatment in her earlier novel Grabben i graven bredvid (The Boy in the Grave Next Door, 1998), a runaway success which was sold to many other countries and also became a film. Without intending to belittle her, one could almost call Mazetti a Jacqueline Wilson for grown-ups. The only risk with fiction like this is that the feel-good factor will override the serious social issues, but it certainly leaves readers eager for more.