The Shadow Girls
Henning Mankell. Translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg.
Vintage Books. First published in Swedish 2001. Translation 2012.
Mankell is the author of a series of very popular detective novels featuring Inspector Wallender, or so I have read on the Internet. I wanted to try one of those and ordered this book, thinking that it belonged to that series. I was mistaken, it doesn't, and I have to postpone my introduction to the famous policeman to another day. But I don't regret the mistake - this book is very good.
The Shadow Girls are three young immigrant women, who have come into Sweden from Iran, Africa and Russia. The last two are illegal, while the first one is trying to break away from her violently traditional family. They are meant to the representative of the thousands of such undocumented aliens who, according to Mankell, were living in Sweden at the time of his writing the book. They live in the shadows of Swedish society, occasionally foraying into the light, but quickly withdrawing back into anonymity and darkness. The protagonist Jesper Humlin is a minor poet, who falls into the company of these girls after one of his public poetry-reading sessions. He is attracted by the mystery they hint at about their histories, and tries to set up a workshop or seminar where he thinks he can get them to tell their stories. The girls do not simply or immediately relate their tragic tales - the hurt to their bodies and spirits is still too raw and fresh, and the danger to their fragile free existence is too near. In order to escape the many ordinary tensions of his middle-class Swedish life, Humlin accompanies the girls into their weird, illegal and almost ghostly life. He tries to help, but finds that anything he can do is trivial and superficial compared to the intensity and depth of their literally existential predicament. In the course of their interactions he learns, in bits and pieces, of their fraught journeys from their unbearable lives in their home countries to one only marginally less so in Sweden. In the end, this is all he is left with, as the girls disappear back into the shadows.
The writing reminds me of John Le Carre, though it is lighter. There is a great deal of humour, as Mankell constantly juxtaposes Humlin's own personal problems with those of the immigrants. Humlin's girlfriend keeps nagging him for a baby, his overbearing octogenarian mother is revealed to have an embarrassing secret career, and his stockbroker cheats him out of almost all his savings. To top it all his publisher thinks nothing of his poetry and keeps urging his to write a crime novel. This is probably a swipe at the numerous Scandinavian crime fiction writers who, in the last few decades, have sprung up like mushrooms. This part of the novel is built mainly of staccato conversations between Humlin, his girlfriend, his mother, his stockbroker, and his publisher. As against this, the portions of the novel that deal with the Shadow Girls is serious, and takes a clear-eyed but sympathetic look at the individual tragedies. Mankell is clearly on the side of the immigrants, and but is not patronizingly so. He constantly compares the life-style of the Swedish middle class - the bourgeoisie - with the travails of the aliens, and sympathizes always with the latter. The book was written a decade and a half ago, just before Western misadventures in North Africa and the Middle East set in motion the vast tide of refugees now lapping the shores of a Europe fast turning into a fortress. Mankell could easily find a place in his heart for a few tens of thousands of the 'wretched of the earth'. I wonder what he feels about the tens of millions of people now seeking asylum in 'his' countries. To be fair, and to go by this book alone, he probably welcomes all of them as well.