Publication: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker, 5 October 2017
Source: review copy via NetGalley
My rating: 5*
Fredrik Welin is a seventy-year-old retired doctor. Years ago he retreated to the Swedish archipelago, where he lives alone on an island. He swims in the sea every day, cutting a hole in the ice if necessary. He lives a quiet life. Until he wakes up one night to find his house on fire.
Fredrik escapes just in time, wearing two left-footed wellies, as neighbouring islanders arrive to help douse the flames. All that remains in the morning is a stinking ruin and evidence of arson. The house that has been in his family for generations and all his worldly belongings are gone. He cannot think who would do such a thing, or why. Without a suspect, the police begin to think he started the fire himself.
Tackling love, loss and loneliness, After the Fire is Henning Mankell’s compelling last novel.
After the Fire by Henning Mankell, translated by Marlaine Delargy, is not standard crime fiction and although there are crimes committed they are not the main focus of the book. Living alone on an isolated island in the Swedish archipelago, Fredrik, a retired doctor, is devastated by the fire which destroyed the house he had inherited from his grandparents. He has nothing left apart from a boathouse, where he had set up an improvised surgery, a caravan (belonging to his daughter, Louise), and a boat. Suspected by the police of starting the fire, he tries to discover the culprit.
But the main emphasis of the book is on his reflections on life, death, ageing, and loneliness. I found it absolutely fascinating as Fredrik looks back over his life. His relationship with his daughter, Louise, who he hadn’t known about until she was an adult, is difficult – he knows almost nothing about her. However this changes when she comes to the island to decide what to do next and he gets more involved in her life.
Told in the first person by Fredrik it goes into detail about his fears of dying and the difficulties of understanding other people and both beginning and maintaining relationships. He has no real friends and only knows a handful of people living on the islands. There is Jansson, a hypochondriac, the former postman, a snooper who read all the postcards he delivered, Oslovski, who he describes as a strange woman his contact with her is only to the extent of checking her blood pressure from time to time and parking his car outside her house on the mainland. Then there is Lisa, a journalist who writes for the local paper, a new acquaintance who interviews him about the fire and Nordin who owns the chandlery.
It’s beautifully written and I was entranced. I found it all very real, the people, the places and the mystery. It is both a character study and a meditation on the complexities of life and death. Once I began reading I just didn’t want it to end.