Although Swedish and with a ludicrous plot, this is not another in the sequence of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Played with Fire. For this good-natured drama, the unconventional implausibility is deliberate and clearly signposted. In the frontispiece, the author notes, “The statistical probability that an illiterate in 1970s Soweto will grow up and one day find herself confined in a potato truck with the Swedish king and prime minister is 1 in 45,766,212,810. According to the calculations of the aforementioned illiterate herself.”
Nombeko Mayeki is a South African girl who grows into a supremely intelligent woman through sheer dint of survival. Her love of books leads her to gain eclectic knowledge, while her diamond discovery ensures her wealth, and takes her far from her origins as an emptier of latrines in Soweto. Times are harsh but never graphic, and there are several fairy-tale elements to this novel, including a dauntless heroine and a cast of colourful characters. After being careless enough to be run over, Nombeko is sent to work as a cleaning lady for the clueless drunken engineer in charge of South Africa’s secret nuclear weapons programme, who makes atomic bombs without any understanding of the mathematics or physics involved.
On her travels she encounters a trio of Chinese sisters manufacturing fake Han Dynasty pottery, and identical twin brothers called Holger – one of whom is bright; the other is not, but he is the one who was registered and so the one who officially exists, inheriting his father’s passion to bring down the monarchy due to a perceived historic sleight. Holger One is in love with Celestine, an angry young woman who wants to protest about everything and disrupts all plans; wanting to be arrested so she can claim to be Edith Piaf and sing Non, Je ne regrette rien. Nombeko also meets potato farmers in rural Sweden and high-powered heads of state, interpreters, and Mossad agents.
Real events (such as the assassination of Olof Palme or the imprisonment and subsequent release of Nelson Mandela) make their way into the novel but, although they lend a touch of realism to the obvious fantasy, they are reported in a light and frothy style, which removes the weight from world atrocities. The cartoonish antiheroes, against whom our plucky underdogs find themselves pitched, are like Roald Dahl villains, and enhance the childlike faux-naïve element.All the threads of stories come together and every strand is woven into the bigger narrative and tied off neatly (if improbably) at the end. The novel has a warm, comfortable feel to it. It is charming without being challenging, with a shallow feel-good factor, leaving behind a faint and forgettable glow.