ITALIAN SHOES by Henning Mankell

Book Quote:

“A naked man in the freezing cold, with an axe in his hand, opening up a hole in the ice? I suppose, really, that I hope there will be someone out there one of these days, a black shadow against all the white — somebody who sees me and wonders if he’d be able to stop me before it was too late.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (JUL 31, 2011)

This is a compact sonata of a novel, composed in four “movements.” The title of the last, “Winter Solstice,” might have been a better title for the whole book, set mainly on a small frozen island off the coast of Sweden. It is certainly an appropriate image: the solstice is the darkest part of the year; after it, the days will get longer, but it will still be winter for a long time. This is a book about resurrection, thaw, the slow flowering of the frozen spirit, but it promises few miracles, and even at the end there are setbacks and reversals — a feeling Nordic people must know well in their long wait for Spring.

Fredrik Welin lives alone on his rocky Baltic island, in a decaying house with an anthill slowly engulfing the table in the living room, breaking the ice on the sea each morning for the chilling plunge that is his principal means of assuring himself that he is still alive. He is not a good person, as other characters in the book will tell him; he is too ready to shrug off his responsibilities. As a young man, he abandoned a woman who loved him. Later, at the height of his career as a surgeon, he abandoned medicine after one horrible mistake. Now in his sixties, he has essentially abandoned life. His only contact with the outside world is the irritating mailman; “it’s not easy when your closest friend is somebody you dislike.”

Then one day he sees a figure on the snow outside his door, an old woman with a walker. It is a figure from his past come back to claim him, to demand an accounting for broken promises, implacable as a Fury, yet offering gifts in return: the opportunity once again to care about others, to move beyond his island fastness, to find a family. Rebirth is painful, and the book is full of violence and anger — but also happiness. Twice, the emotions are so strong that Welin flees back to his island. His is by no means a steady progress, more like a game of Chutes and Ladders; there is one especially shocking turnaround just as you think you’re coming into the home stretch. Mankell resolutely avoids easy endings; but the understated ending he does write is quietly moving and absolutely true.

There are several different Henning Mankells. Welin’s imperfections as a family man are an extension of Kurt Wallander of the detective novels, only without the crime. He has used the Baltic archipelago setting before in his WW1 psychodrama Depths, but this novel is modern, and thankfully less psychotic. Less isolated too, but the global politics that have been a concern of several of his later novels, most especially The Man from Beijing, are only a distant aura. But still a perceptible one; two of the women who enter Welin’s life are involved in a world beyond Sweden, mostly combating intolerance and greed. One of the characters has gone on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in search of God, but failed to find Him. “When I closed that church door behind me, there was nothing else left. But I realized that this emptiness was a sort of consolation in itself.” Mankell works with emptiness, turning it from negative space into a positive one, even a sacred space in a secular world. Long before Christianity, the Winter Solstice has always been associated with religious rites, a magic too mysterious for mere words.

And the title Mankell did choose? A small detail merely, a pair of handcrafted Italian Shoes, made over a period of months by an old Italian craftsman living in retirement in the Swedish forest. A sacrament also, they are a small example of the search for perfection, and a reminder of love where other loves have failed.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 35 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 19, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Henning Mankell
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


Kurt Wallander Series:

Stand alone novels:

Teen Read:

Movies from books:

July 31, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , ,  В· Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Sweden, Swedish Crime Writer, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.