Benny and Shrimp is a novel about discovering a new passion, and trying to make it work against the day to day problems of everyday life. When they meet at a cemetery - while Desiree (or "Shrimp") mourns her late husband, and Benny tends the shared grave of his parents - it is most definitely not love at first sight. Yet, against the odds, passion grows between Shrimp, the pale, bookish librarian and Benny, the overworked milk farmer. Katarina Mazetti writes in a quirky manner about the trials and tribulations of passion versus practicality: Shrimp is looking for a man who will come with her to the opera and who reads books for pleasure; Benny requires a woman who can keep the farmhouse running while he tends to the cows.
The chapters are told from alternate viewpoints, which made this read all the more pleasurable. Being able to see the same incident from both viewpoints ensured the reader always had sympathy and empathy for both parties in the relationship - unlike most love stories, where it is easy to throw your lot in with one injured party. Mazetti shows us that, most often, misunderstandings are the root of all problems in a relationship.
I adored the little bits of spiky poetry and commentary that headed up each of Shrimp's chapters - they gave a good measure of how she was feeling regarding Benny and the relationship:
"I have to get through the minutes one at a time, swallow them like bitter pills, try not to dwell on the vast number still left."
The strength of the novel is the realism with which the love story is presented. Benny and Shrimp are chalk and cheese and there is no automatic happy ending for them (although I am not going to spoil how it ends for the reader!) as there would be in a standard chick lit novel, say.
"A couple of times we rented a video. Or rather, we've never rented just one, because we can never agree. We rent two. Then she gets out her flowery bag while my video's on, and I fall asleep during hers. We're like chalk and cheese [...] And I don't want it ever to end."
The chapters are short and sweet, which encourages you to keep reading further: 'just one more chapter...' The language is extremely quirky, and was the main factor in the novel that I struggled a little with - since it is a translation from Swedish (this book is a bestseller in Sweden), I am happy to accept that this might be the cause, but as an example the following sentence made me cringe a little:
"For some I'm a voter, for others a pedestrian, a wage earner, a consumer of culture, a human resource or a property owner. Or just a collection of split ends, leaking sanitary towels and dry skin."
One other issue I had with Benny and Shrimp is that later on in the story a character called Anita was re-introduced and I simply couldn't remember at what point I'd first heard about her - this is not because Anita was unmemorable, but because Benny and Shrimp completely dominate this novel. They are the only two characters I want to know about, and the periods where we hear about other characters are, to me, an unnecessary diversion. I do accept that other readers might feel differently, and enjoy the oddball cast of secondary characters.
In summary this was a beautiful but all too brief picture of a sweet love story between two extremely disparate characters. I have heard that a sequel is written in Swedish, but is waiting for translation into English: all I can say is that I want this translation done NOW so that I can hear more about Benny and Shrimp. Moving.