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A Fairy Tale

A Fairy Tale

by Jonas T. Bengtsson, Charlotte Barslund

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In a Europe without borders, where social norms have become fragile, a son must confront the sins of his father and grandfather, and invent new strategies for survival

A young boy grows up with a loving father who has little respect for the law. They are always on the run, and as they move from place to place, the boy is often distraught to leave


In a Europe without borders, where social norms have become fragile, a son must confront the sins of his father and grandfather, and invent new strategies for survival

A young boy grows up with a loving father who has little respect for the law. They are always on the run, and as they move from place to place, the boy is often distraught to leave behind new friendships. Because it would be dicey for him to go to school, his anarchistic father gives him an unconventional education intended to contradict as much as possible the teachings of his own father, a preacher and a pervert. Ten years later, when the boy is entering adulthood, with a fake name and a monotonous job, he tries to conform to the demands of ordinary life, but the lessons of the past thwart his efforts, and questions about his father’s childhood cannot be left unanswered.

Spanning the mid-1980s to early-twenty-first-century in Copenhagen, this coming-of-age novel examines what it means to be a stranger in the modern world, and how, for better or for worse, a father’s legacy is never passed on in any predictable fashion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The latest from Danish author Bengtsson (Submarino) focuses on the relationships between fathers and sons. A young boy bounces around Copenhagen with his father, a loving but seemingly unstable man who moves restlessly from apartment to apartment and job to job. The boy, who shows a talent and love for drawing, is homeschooled and nourished on elaborate fairy tales involving a king and a prince searching for the “White Queen,” a stand-in for the boy’s mother. After his father’s fixations turn violent, the boy is shuttled off to his mother and her new husband. Only as a young man does he begin asking questions about what led to his father’s actions. His search for answers leads to his paternal grandparents, then back to Copenhagen, where he begins working at a post office and, for the first time, goes by an assumed name, Mehmet Faruk. In Copenhagen, he achieves a modicum of happiness, finding both love and artistic recognition, but then the mysteries of his past resurface. The early, child’s-eye-view sections are filled with somewhat improbably precocious wisdom, but, on the whole, the book’s short, lively chapters create a resonant catalogue of life. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"[A] resonant catalogue of life" —Publishers Weekly

“Danish author Bengtsson’s first novel to be published in the U.S….has an almost hypnotic power to draw readers into the narrative and hold their attention to its melancholy ending.” —Booklist

“[T]his novel—sensitively translated by Charlotte Barslund—so brilliantly demonstrates how, to satisfy the psyche, memory selects, isolates, concentrates and invents. Bengtsson’s is the art of the fable; Et eventyr, his book’s Danish title, evokes Hans Christian Andersen. A Fairy Tale is a powerful journey through archetypal encounters in which the young protagonist reaches a catharsis both emotionally lacerating and spiritually liberating. Fittingly he emerges from it an artist.” —Times Literary Supplement

 “[A Fairy Tale] The novel is a drawing rendered slowly over time, a collection of straight and stark lines made by a boy struggling to create a story, and a self, from a life of transience, deception, and pain. The nature of this constant forward motion changes, however, over the course of A Fairy Tale as violence and trauma become a destination the now adult boy can no longer avoid. And we must run with him too, until we can’t.” —Words Without Borders

 It is also a novel with a precocious young narrator, and one of outsider culture, and, to complete a series, also a novel of short, "cinematic" chapters. Yet because Bengtsson puts all these aspects to use, draws something interesting and new out of them, they fit together to form a complete work that doesn't rely on tropes as crutches, but as a needed part of the whole.” —Bookslut 

 “A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma.” —The Millions

"In a mash-up of film noir, fairy tale, and bildungsroman, Danish author Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale traces the unusual and occasionally horrific journey of a boy and his father. Deftly narrated from the child’s point of view, the book takes on the power of myth. Themes touching on the artist/other in society, loss of innocence, abandonment, and the search for identity are subtly woven throughout." —Foreword

"A unique and brilliantly observed depiction of a father–son relationship, and the perils of unconditional love." — Jon Bauer, author of the IMPAC Award-shortlisted Rocks in the Belly

"If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road offered an actual relationship instead of only an emptiness that readers fill, then it might approach Jonas Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale.  Here are a father and son in desperate circumstances, paired off against the world, but their relationship is rich and strange and intensely human and particular.  This father is one of the best characters I’ve ever read in fiction, and the story is beautifully told." —David Vann, best-selling author of Dirt and Legend of a Suicide

 “With controlled and measured prose, Jonas T. Bengtsson builds subtle suspense, describing the experiences of a young boy, who is at once protected by his father's love while under constant threat of the darkness of their daily reality. A Fairy Tale is a profound and penetrating novel about the unbreakable bond between a father and son.” — Lawrence Hill, author of Someone Knows My Name, winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Best Book Prize

“[A Fairy Tale] is...compelling for showing the dark side of seemingly normally things—the city of Copenhagen, theater shows, gardening—and its showing of the bright side of things that are normally seen in their darkest light—strip clubs, shoplifting, and mental institutions....This is a worthy introduction of Jonas T. Bengtsson to the English audience. Those drawn to Updike’s Rabbit series...will gravitate to A Fairy Tale because it has the underlying rebellious spirit that does not often bubble to the surface in such a collective environment.” —Three Percent

“The real strength of Bengtsson’s novel lies in his touching exploration of the bond shared between father and son and the way he skillfully transitions from the placid, go-with-the-flow waters of childhood to the rough, jaded chop of teenage life without ever missing a beat.  Child narrators are a notoriously tricky beast to tame, but Bengtsson’s nameless one (and Charlotte Barslund’s translation of his many voices) never feels less than authentic.” —Typographical Era

Kirkus Reviews
Dad knows best. Or does he? A boy's unconventional upbringing skews his worldview in this Danish author's third novel (but first U.S. publication). Dad is upset. He's sobbing. He is reacting to the news that a progressive Swedish politician has been murdered. This is how we first see the young father with the shoulder-length hair—through the eyes of his 6-year-old son, the narrator. (Neither father nor son is named.) The politics, the violence, the emotional vulnerability, they all presage the novel's key moment. It's 1986. The novel's first and longest section follows father and son through the next three years, in dozens of short takes. Life is not easy. In Copenhagen, they are constantly moving. Dad is a jack-of-all-trades, working as a butcher, a gardener, a bouncer at a strip club, a stage manager at a failing theater, though never for very long. His son takes it all in stride, though, as kids do, and Dad is affectionate, protective and fun. He tells the boy a fairy tale, in installments; disturbingly, for the reader, it shows a paranoid streak. He encourages the boy's talent for drawing though resists his pleas to go to school. His life lessons are unorthodox: Steal from stores if you're in need; don't save money, spend it. Eventually, Dad loses it. At a rally, he threatens a politician with a knife and is wrestled to the ground; his motivation goes unexplained. We move forward. In a topsy-turvy middle section, the boy is 16, living with his mother and stepfather, and is now a gifted but troubled high school student. There's a visit to a dying grandfather, who hints darkly that he abused the boy's dad. By 1999, he's a profile in alienation. He has adopted a Turkish identity and has a nothing job; his only hope of salvation is his painting talent. Is this the father's story or the son's? Bengtsson's ambivalence proves fatal, yielding a broken-backed narrative.

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Other Press, LLC
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Read an Excerpt

The television shows images of a dark street, road signs, and snow. Stockholm. A sidewalk has been cordoned off with red-and-white plastic tape, people have gathered behind it. They, too, are standing very still. Some are clasping their mouths. The woman on the television speaks very slowly as if she has just woken up. She says that Olof Palme came out of a cinema not far from there. That he was with his wife, that they had been to see the film The Mozart Brothers and were on their way home.
On the gray sidewalk are dark stains that look like paint. The camera zooms in on them. “It’s blood,” my dad says, never once taking his eyes off the screen.
We’re back on the street. We walk quickly as if rushing away from the images on the television.
I think we’re heading home until we turn right by the closed-down butcher’s. Toward the harbor, down a narrow, cobbled street.
My dad sits down on an iron girder; I sit down beside him, as close to him as I can get. The water in front of us is black. A couple of fishing boats are sailing into the harbor; there’s a huge crane to our right, its hook hangs just above the surface of the water. The sky is gray.
My dad hides his face in his coat sleeve. I hear loud sobs through the thick fabric. He squeezes my hand so hard that it hurts.
“So they got him,” he says. “The bastards finally got him.”
I don’t remember ever seeing my dad cry. I ask him if Palme was someone he knew, but he makes no reply. He holds me tight. My feet are freezing in the rain boots.
“They got him,” he says again.
The wind whips the sea into foam.
“I think we’re going to have to move again.”

Meet the Author

Jonas T. Bengtsson has published two previous novels: his 2005 literary debut, Amina’s Letters, winner of the Danish Debutant Award and BG Bank First Book Award; and Submarino, the film adaptation of which took the 2010 Nordic Council Film Prize. He has also received the P.O. Enquist Literary Prize and was nominated for the Weekendavisens Literature Prize. He lives in Copenhagen.
Charlotte Barslund was born in Denmark and has lived in the UK since 1984. She has translated novels by Peter Adolphsen, Karin Fossum, Per Petterson, Carsten Jensen, Sissel-Jo Gazan, Thomas Enger, and Mikkel Birkegaard, as well as a wide range of classic and contemporary plays.

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