The Shadow Girls

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Read 25/05/2016-28/05/2016

Rating: 5 stars

Henning Mankell’s Wallander series is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years. We stumbled upon the Swedish film adaptations late one night (the ones starring Krister Henriksson, not Rolf Lassgård) and I sought out the books. It was love at first read. I love crime and detective fiction anyway, but this was different to what I was familiar with. Wallander was more human, more vulnerable, more honestly ridiculous than most other middle aged, emotionally dysfunctional male detectives that populate the genre. He was those things as well, but he reflected on his inadequacies and used his job as a distraction and a proof that he wasn’t all bad. He also reflected on the nature of the crimes he investigated, not willing to pass them off as the inevitable actions of bad people, but recognising changes in society as an underlying cause. Wallander isn’t a hard boiled cop, he’s a cop with a conscience. The life Mankell built for him outside work was as richly described as his professional one, making him more real. I cared about him. For anyone who hasn’t read the series, I won’t give away the ending, but I will admit that I cried.

I’ve read other books by Mankell, too. I loved Italian Shoes and The Return of the Dancing Master. The Man from Beijing wasn’t my favourite, but it was readable. Mankell also had a passion for Africa and spent a lot of time there, developing a theatre company in Mozambique. He was politically active and supported social justice. He wrote a few novels based on his experiences in Africa, and when I went to change my books at the library recently, I decided to give one a try. I picked up The Shadow Girls, which is about refugees and immigration.

The first chapter was a struggle. I had to start it twice. I think it was a struggle for Mankell to get the tone right, too. There were some preachy moments where he tried to get across how it must feel to be a refugee in a camp, but it was stilted and lacked a sense that the character was really feeling the words she was thinking. Tea-Bag is an interesting character, trying to hold on to memories as a spur to improving her life. She sells her body to raise the money to join a ship leaving Africa for Europe, packed with refugees. When it runs aground, she almost drowns, but survives and ends up in a Spanish refugee camp. She is determined to escape the camp and, when she encounters a Swedish journalist, decides that Sweden will be her destination.

The reporter who packed away his tape recorder had not in fact provided her with a way out of the camp. But she had still found her door. She had the name of a country far away where people actually wanted to see her face and were interested in hearing her story: Sweden. She decided that that was where she was headed, nowhere else. Sweden. There were people there who had sent out someone to watch out for her.

Once Mankell stopped trying to get across the bleakness and solitude of camp life, the flow of the story improved. And once he introduced his familiar male lead, the poet Jesper Humlin who is middle aged and in crisis, it flowed even better. It became surreally funny, too, as Jesper navigated the bizarre world of poetry and publishing while also navigating his broody and bolshy girlfriend and his irascible mother.

Within three chapters, Mankell brings Jesper and Tea-Bag together. Jesper is scratching about for a new direction. He’s threatened by a fellow poet with whom he has an anti-friendship. This man has decided to write a crime novel. Jesper’s editor wants Jesper to also write a crime novel, but Jesper doesn’t want to. And so he decides to write about immigrants to Sweden, and befriends Tea-Bag in an attempt to gather material. Tea-Bag has two other friends, Leyla and Tanya. They are connected to Jesper’s old school friend Törnblom. The stories they tell him about their journeys to Sweden as refugees might not be exactly the truth, but they are a broad truth that speaks of what it is to be afraid for your life, desperate enough to put yourself in more danger in order to escape, and what it is to feel displaced and alien. All three girls are tough, and they run rings around the effete Jesper.

I enjoyed the folkloric, dreaming way Tea-Bag relates her story to Jesper. I thought Mankell had successfully captured an African way of story telling that I have encountered in African literature. I suppose his years in Mozambique working with writers and actors tuned his ear to the way African writers tell stories.

Meanwhile, pretty much everyone Jesper knows announces they are writing a novel. His girlfriend, his stock broker, his mother, his anti-friend. Girlfriend aside, they are all writing a crime novel. This recurring theme made me laugh. I liked how anxious it made Jesper, how casual his friends, family and acquaintances were about it. It especially made me laugh because Mankell is most known as a crime writer and, in the UK at least, Sweden is known for its crime writers.

There is something nightmarish about Jesper’s relationships in the way people never believe what he says to them, always think the worst of him, and determine courses of action for him that he doesn’t take, further fuelling their poor opinion of him. I over-use the term Kafka-esque, but there is something of the circularity of The Castle in the conversations Jesper finds himself in, and the lies the other people tell about him which he must then (unsuccessfully) deny. This style of writing is present in Mankell’s Wallander books, I now realise, but it is more subtle in those stories, reserved mainly for Wallander’s interactions with his father, daughter and ex-wife. This book felt like Mankell was pushing against his crime novel boundaries and allowing certain styles to come to the fore. It worked for me. I enjoyed the book in a different way, because Mankell had shown a different side to him that I found interesting.

Jesper’s relationship with the three girls opens his eyes to the immigrant situation in Sweden. He notices more people from other countries, and Mankell uses Jesper’s experiences to comment on the contribution immigrants make in Sweden, and how their immigrant status prevents them from continuing the work they did in the country they fled. My favourite example of this was the ticket clerk at the station. Jesper sees he is reading a book of poetry and initiates a conversation about the poet. He is shocked by the clerk’s opinion and asks him what he means, eliciting this sobering response

‘It might take too long for us to straighten this out now,’ the clerk said. Then he pushed a card over to Humlin.

‘You can call me if you want to discuss poetry some time. Before I came to Sweden, I was an associate professor of literature at a university. Here I stamp tickets.’

Gradually, under the guise of learning to write at the seminars Törnblom has bullied Jesper into running, each girl tells Jesper her story. Mankell gives them universal stories that we have all read. The girl from the controlling family who will be beaten or killed if she brings dishonour to her family. The girl fleeing a former Communist country sold into sex slavery. The girl whose family got on the wrong side of the corrupt military junta running their country. Each girl is strong, made so by disillusion. This book was written 15 years ago. There are still universal stories like these appearing daily in the news. And do any of us know what to do about it? In my country, a lot of people, including gobby politicians, seem to think the answer is to close our borders and isolate ourselves from the issue. The rest of us feel we should try to do something but are as confused as Jesper Humlin.

This is a very good book. Amidst all the farce of Jesper’s privileged liberal life, Mankell relays another, more important story. You should read it.

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