In this work of contemporary political fiction, economist David Pedersen moves from Denmark to Washington, D.C. to join the World Bank. He is driven by two burning ambitions: to fight poverty and to build a family better than the one from his childhood.
The World Bank brings genuine rewards, frustrating challenges, and the unexpected; while in West Africa, he is held hostage for ransom.
Pursuing an ethical, happy life becomes a balancing act with surprising twists, including passionate love, exciting sexual experimentation, tragic loss, culture wars, and domestic terror making him run to save his life.
Told in a non-linear narrative, The Benevolent World Banker successfully balances the backstory leading to the abduction and the mounting tension of David’s predicament, as Nielsen teases revelations about what’s really going on. Nielsen offers some thriller violence—“In frustration, he simply shot the man closest to him in the head”—but the novel is replete with smart economic and political talk, offering a fresh perspective on the nuts and bolts of working at an institution such as the World Bank. Often, the telling here feels like insider gossip. Plot-heavy with a slow burn, the story of David’s captivity is an arresting, upsetting account of the physical and psychological torment that comes with witnessing firsthand the horrible lengths his captors will go to execute their retribution.
Nielsen brings a welcome sense of international complexity to the story, both in its texture and plotting— David can’t trust the U.S. government will bother saving him, as he’s Danish, not American. That’s also true of Nielsen’s treatment of faith, as David tries to make sense of the intricacies of Christianity and Islam while in the throes of grief and torture: which God rules—the vengeful or the merciful one? Readers of thrillers invested in the workings of the world, especially particularly politics and economics, will find this engaging.
Takeaway: Smart international thriller of an economist kidnapped by terrorists.
Comparable Titles: Brad Taylor's The Devil's Ransom, Chris Pavone.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A-
Nielsen's book can be described in many ways, and it is likely reviewers will all have their own choice of adjectives, but one thing which is unambiguous and not in doubt, across the board, is that it is a real work of excellent quality. Even better, it is that rare thing: a gripping fiction book in which the reader genuinely doesn't know what is going to happen next. The story itself, to be honest, is a very simple one; the book is perhaps more literary or metaphorical than a formula narrative. That said, although primarily social allegory, it does have a suspenseful plot, if perhaps it takes a little while to get going and lulls some in between.
Danish-American protagonist David is exactly as the title suggests, a global bank worker, who visits some of the most deprived and dangerous places in the world, collating data and liaising with dignitaries, for his company to consider investing in aid and infrastructure. In this capacity, then, he polarizes people's opinion of him, most of the people he meets assuming him and his employers to be mere greedy globalists, others understanding more insightfully the benevolent nature of his work and indeed his character. For David is an idealist. A liberally minded capitalist, who genuinely wants to bring health and prosperity into the lives of these people.
In the main, the allegory element of this book is its main objective, and I think it's fair to say that its liberalist leanings and those of its principal are probably going to irritate some readers. But Nielsen is no fool, and clearly no naïve bleeding heart. He knows his subject extraordinarily well, and, through David, successfully manages to out-debate any of the right of centre rhetoric he encounters (fictionally, of course). Although it does have a small amount of action, some very surprising and graphic sexual content, and tense drama involving terrifying Islamic extremists and some very shady Americans in suits, it is apparent that it is, dare I venture, by extension a chance for the author to show off his knowledge of inequality on a global and domestic scale, its root causes and its possible solutions. David is obviously an academic and at times a particularly disagreeable one, with many references to the characters of Kafka; it is fair to say that I didn't find him endearing or likeable, and indeed at times I felt the overall rhetoric to be almost ideological. Some readers might be put off by the abundant references to inequality and privilege, though it seems to me that Nielsen goes out of his way to present both sides of every argument objectively; still, the left leanings are perhaps more heavily weighted - or maybe just a little more convincing by design.
Hopefully, this review will make clear that what you are getting in this book is a very, very well written and well-constructed social commentary, but more importantly, a good quality, engaging and intensely thought-provoking fiction novel, by an author who clearly knows what they're talking about. I highly recommend it, and indeed that you look out for what Nielsen publishes next, for I will be.