Sunday, April 28, 2013

On "The Shadow Girls" by Henning Mankell ***

I came to Mankell looking for contemporary Swedish crime fiction as part of my ongoing Scandinavian reading list, opting for Mankell's work because I figured it less likely to be recalled in the middle of my reading than Steig Larsen's. The Shadow Girls, I suppose, is crime fiction of a sort; the girls are illegal immigrants, and the book is about a man who tries to give them voice. There is no illegality beyond their national/border status and a bit of pick-pocketing, which is mostly made light of. There are no real thrills, and the mystery to be answered is mostly, Who are these women?

I found myself most drawn to the main character and his life. Joseph Humlin is a poet. How a poet can make enough to live off of writing books would be a very good question in the United States, but I would assume that in Sweden, Humlin is likely the recipient of various generous government grants meant to keep Swedish literature and arts alive, since any writer or artist would have a very limited national audience. Nevertheless, Humlin's publisher is not immune to wanting sales, and sales these days come from crime novels, so that is what the publisher wants Humlin to write.

Humlin won't have it. Sure, his poetry books barely clear one thousand copies, but he's not going to write what every other person in Sweden seems to be putting together, including his stock broker and his mom. Instead, he decides to focus on illegal immigrants, to tell their story, an idea that comes to him one day when he meets a certain woman from Africa named Tea-Bag (or Florence).

What follows is an account of Humlin's attempt to teach these immigrants how to write, how to find their own voices, while Humlin struggles to find his own peace. He's lost most of his money on the stock market; his overbearing girlfriend wants to have a kid; he's not sure he's really a good writer.

The characters surrounding Humlin's everyday life are fascinating and fun. I wish I could have felt the same about the immigrant women. The women are in the shadows, which means that they often change identities. They live on the edge, trying to avoid being caught by police--or by anyone who might transport them back to the world from which they come. Where that world is is slowly shared with us . . . sort of. That they so often change stories and seem so enigmatic as to be almost incomprehensible means that I never felt much kinship with them, and their stories, as they unfolded, didn't much hold me as enthralled as they hold Humlin (or indeed Mankell).

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