Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

Italian Shoes

I decided to read Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson, after reading After the Fire his second book about Frederick Welin.  The events in Italian Shoes take place eight years earlier and explains in more detail Welin’s background and why he lives in self-imposed exile on an island in the Swedish archipelago. The two books can be read as standalones, but I think it would be better to read them in order to make a complete whole. These books are not Kurt Wallender mysteries but are character studies of a man living on his own, trying to come to terms with his past and reflecting on ageing and death. He cuts a hole in the ice every morning and lowers himself into the freezing water to remind himself that he is alive.

If this description makes Welin sound cold that is because he is a loner and finds it difficult to open himself up to others. He is sixty six, lives alone, apart from his cat and his dog, both of them old and dying, and he has no real friends. There is Jansson, a hypochondriac, the  postman who visits daily, but Welin doesn’t like him. He has come to a point in his life when he can’t decide what to do but suspects that his life would continue in the same way and nothing would change.

How wrong he was! That January after a snowstorm he saw a figure standing out on the ice motionless leaning on a Zimmer frame three nautical miles from the mainland. It was Harriet, the woman he had loved and abandoned nearly 40 years earlier, leaving her without any explanation. From that point onwards his life changes dramatically, for Harriet is terminally ill and wants him to take her to a small lake in northern Sweden, hidden deep in the forest; a place Welin’s father took him to once as a boy. But there are more revelations and he is forced to face the mistakes he made in the past.

The book is written in four parts, or Movements – Ice, the winter in which Welin is frozen both in his emotions and feelings, The Forest, the spring as his life and feelings begin to emerge, The Sea as his life begins to change and finally, Winter Solstice as the days start to lengthen and Welin’s new life actually begins.

I was puzzled at first by two things – the title, Italian Shoes, which seemed to be at odds with the book’s description about a man living on his own in the Swedish archipelago. the first clue comes with the quotation at the beginning of the book from Chuang Chou:

When the shoe fits, you don’t think about the feet.

Feet and shoes are mention several times throughout the book – Welin wears cut-off wellington boots most of the time – Harriet used to work in a shoe shop – and an Italian shoemaker who lives in the forest promises to make him a pair of shoes.

The second thing that made me wonder is the presence of a gigantic anthill in Welin’s living room. I do not like ants at all and the thought of an anthill next to a table in the middle of the room, almost as high as the table, swallowing up the cloth hanging down over the edge is horrific. It has been there for eleven years, containing maybe a million or more ants and Welin does not want to part with it – until the end of the book. I decided it symbolised his  inertia during the time it had been growing and he watched the ants at work. Its removal signified the change that takes place in his life.

Although this is a dark and melancholy book, as it progresses Welin begins to come to life again and to interact with others, taking responsibility for his past actions. It’s a beautifully written book, with vivid descriptions of the settings and the weather and I found it absolutely fascinating.

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into the category of a book with a nationality in the title. It’s also one of my TBRs.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 783 KB
  • Print Length: 370 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0099548364
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (2 April 2009)
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 4*

New-to-Me Books from Barter Books

Yesterday I went to my favourite bookshop Barter Books, one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain. This is where you can ‘swap’ books for credit that you can then use to get more books from the Barter Books shelves.

These are the books I brought home:

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A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes (a new-to-me author) – the second book in her Alice Quentin series. I haven’t read the first book but I thought this looks good – it’s a psychological thriller. At the height of a summer heatwave, a killer stalks the City of London.The avenging angel leaves behind a scattering of feathers with each body – but why these victims? What were their sins?

Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge – described on the back cover as ‘surreal’ (TLS) and ‘very funny as well as a frightening book’ (Guardian), I’m not sure what I’ll make of this book about a womaniser who begins an extra-marital affair, but I’ve liked other books by Beryl Bainbridge.

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell. I’ve enjoyed a couple of his books before, so this Inspector Wallander book caught my eye. A little raft is washed ashore on a beach in Sweden. It contains two men, shot dead. They’re identified as criminals, victims of a gangland hit. Wallander’s investigation takes him to Latvia.

The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning – another new-to-me author. This is historical fiction set in 1761 about a whaler’s wife in the Cape Cod village of Satucket in Massachusetts, living with the daily uncertainty that her husband Edward will simply not return. And when her worst fear is realised, she finds herself doubly cursed.

Have you read any of these? Do they tempt you too?

After the Fire by Henning Mankell

Publication: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker, 5 October 2017

Source: review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 5*

Description:

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.

My thoughts:

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.

Sunday Salon

Last Sunday I wrote that I was going to concentrate on reading just two books at a time concentrating on reading one non-fiction and one fiction. I sort of stuck to my plan and am still reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. I finished Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear (more about that in a later post) and my plan after that was to go back to reading one of the books shown on the sidebar – Wolf Hall or The Children’s Book.

But it didn’t work out like that, because I went with D to a hospital appointment and needed a book to read whilst waiting. Both Wolf Hall and The Children’s Book are heavy hardbacks and wouldn’t fit in my handbag so instead I picked up one of my library books – Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell and started to read that. Reading in a hospital waiting room is an exercise in concentration. First off  we had to use the hand spray to prevent catching, spreading the swine flu germs – how that works I don’t understand given that once you’re in you have to touch chairs, doors etc. Then we were told to sit on the green chairs whilst waiting to go to the next waiting area. The green chairs are next to the entrance doors that open automatically each time someone goes near, and it was a wet, windy day. One small boy was fascinated by the doors and kept walking in front of them saying “close” when they opened which meant that they stayed open. This went on for several minutes until his mother came and took him away. I read a few pages whilst being alternately amused and irritated and shivering.

We then were called to the next waiting area – no automatic doors, but a constant stream of doctors and nurses calling out names and ushering people through, people complaining about how long they’d had to wait, the phone ringing and people talking loudly. Still, it is a hospital, not a reading room, no matter how long you have to wait. But Faceless Killers is sufficiently engrossing so that I was hardly aware of what was going on around me.

I finshed it this morning and will now read either Wolf Hall or The Children’s Book. I started both of them a while back and only put them down because they’re so heavy it’s hard to read them in bed (where I like to do my reading). I’ll have to work on strengthening my hands and arms.

I hadn’t heard of Henning Mankell until the BBC broadcast the Wallender series last year with Kenneth Branagh playing Kurt Wallender. I’d been meaning to read one of the books since then. Branagh’s face was inevitably in my mind as I read Faceless Killers, but as it wasn’t one of the books filmed the rest was purely down to my imagination from reading the book.  Wallender is yet another detective to join the ranks of Rebus in my mind. He is a senior police officer and, like Morse, listens to opera in his car and in his apartment. He is lonely, morose, overweight and drinks too much. His wife, Mona has left him, he’s estranged from his daughter, Linda and has problems with his father, an artist who has painted the same picture for years and is now senile.

I discovered on the Inspector Wallender website that Faceless Killers is the first in the Kurt Wallender series of books, so for once I’ve begun at the beginning of a series! (Although Wallender first appears in The Pyramid, a collection of short stories). It’s about the brutal murder of the Lovgrens, an old man and his wife in an isolated farmhouse in Skane, the southern most province in Sweden (there’s a helpful map in the book). The old lady’s last word is “foreign”. Does this mean the killers are foreigners? When this is leaked to the press the ugly issue of racial hatred is raised. Are the killers illegal immigrants from the refugee camps, or should the police be looking at the Lovgrens’ family? Why would anyone kill them in such a savage way – they weren’t rich and had no enemies?

This is not just a detective story, apart from racial discrimination and refugees, Wallender reflects on the problems of change in Swedish society, of aging, and of the uncertainty and fragility of life – the incantation he often reflects on is:

A time to live and a time to die.

I hope to find the next Wallender book to read soon: The Dogs of Riga.

Faceless Killers, like other Wallender books, has been adapted into a series on Swedish TV and an English version, again with Kenneth Branagh, is due to be broadcast next year.