The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Hesperus Press: paperback published 2009: 387 pages
You’re never too old for an adventure…
Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, Allan Karlsson is waiting for a party he doesn’t want to begin. His one-hundredth birthday party to be precise. The Mayor will be there. The press will be there. But, as it turns out, Allan will not…
Escaping (in his slippers) through his bedroom window, into the flowerbed, Allan makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, Allan’s earlier life is revealed. A life in which – remarkably – he played a key role behind the scenes in some of the momentous events of the twentieth century.
I had to stop and think quite carefully about how I wanted to review this book. When I talk about it or mention it in passing, I say how much I enjoyed it and recommend it as a good read. But when I pause, when I sit down and look at this book and think about it critically… I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Let me explain.
This is a wonderful story. It’s funny and entertaining and has enough of a hook all the way through it to keep reading to the end. In fact, it’s just the right story to read during a busy week (so you don’t have time to think too much), or if you’re ill, or if you just have a spare day to sit down and read (preferably with a cup of tea and slice of cake). It’s a warm-and-fuzzy read.
But there are certain points at which I simply can’t get on board. Allan is a very likeable character – especially during those flashbacks to his earlier life. But I just don’t buy him being 100 years old. I don’t care how sprightly you are, a 100-year-old simply CANNOT do some of the things our elderly Allan does. 80? Yes. 90? Possibly. But 100? No.
But I can look past that – he’s cute and witty and much more intelligent than he lets on. He’s a nice character, one that you feel comfortable with throughout the story, and you’re quite happy for him to take you on this ramble through his life, because he’s just one of those interesting kind of people. His backstory is certainly more interesting than his current predicament – suitcase of cash or no. He seems to bumble good-naturedly through some hairy moments, some fascinating moments and frankly some hilarious moments. He meets other bumblers, and other people who are quite the opposite, who would like Allan to be a non-bumbler but can’t change his mind no matter what. You realise quite how clever he is, and quickly spot what this means – but Allan doesn’t mind. He just wants to help out.
Each thread of this book hangs very loosely together. Like a patchwork of short stories, whose similarities begin and end with the protagonists, they are entertaining in their own right, and you know why they have been put in one book, but you would have been as equally happy with them separately.
The characters themselves – again, all very likeable (this is a word I will use a lot with this book) – vary between the deeply realistic and the one-dimensional. From the Americans to the Russians to the Koreans and Indonesians, the characters can’t decide between being fascinating layers of intrigue and conflict, or flat characters used to bump the story along. Even the characters that Allan teams up with at 100 flip-flop between authentic and flimsy.
And that’s how I feel about this book – I flip-flop between enjoyment and ambiguity. It’s a remarkably well-written, entertaining tale – and an original idea in a sea-full of fan fiction remakes. The author has an engaging style, and uses that well in context. But there are places where it just doesn’t hold up under the spotlight.
Which is why I have to give it my “meh” rating. Not because I disliked it… I recommend it as a read, but just not a scrupulous read.