Jonas T. Bengtsson translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund

A Fairy Tale

Publication Date: Mar 25, 2014

416 pp

List Price US $16.95


List Price US $15.95
ISBN: 9781590516959

Trade Paperback

List Price US $16.95
Trim Size (H x W): 5.5 x 8.5
ISBN: 9781590516942

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.

Excerpt from A Fairy Tale

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.”

“[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

  1. How did you feel about the relationship between the narrator and his father in A Fairy Tale? Did you feel differently during the first half of the novel than you did at the ending?
  2. Is the novel a fairy tale? What role do fairy tales play?
  3. The father uses stories to shape his son’s understanding of the unusual lifestyle they are living. How do these stories affect the son as an adult? How does storytelling change each character?
  4. Art plays a crucial role throughout the novel—as a child, the narrator and his son are involved in the theater. As an adult the narrator becomes a painter. What does art mean to the narrator? What does it mean to his father? How does the narrator react to his own paintings when they are displayed in the gallery? Does his relationship to art change after his art show?
  5. Were you surprised when the narrator chose to leave his family at the end of part one? When we see him in 1999, he has chosen to work a menial job and live under an assumed name. Why do you think he has chosen to live this way? Do you think he could have chosen a different lifestyle?
  6. Is Elsebeth a mother figure? What does the narrator’s relationship with her reveal? Do you feel that she is different than the other women portrayed in the novel?
  7. Is the narrator’s father a good father? How does our understanding of the father change as the narrator grows up throughout the book? On page 331, we find out more about the father’s relationship to the grandfather. How does this change the original relationship between the narrator and his father?
  8. The narrator struggles to find contentment with Petra, but also struggles to leave her. Did you like Petra? Is she a good influence on the narrator?
  9. The father and then the narrator always seem to be on the run. Does nationality play a role in the son’s upbringing? How does the lack of a stable home change the relationship between the son and his father? Is the Europe of the novel recognizable to you?
  10. How did you feel when you finished the novel? Were you surprised? Angry? Is the ending a happy ending?