The Shadow Girls, By Henning Mankell (translated by Ebba Segerberg)

Forget poetry – where's Wallander?

Reviewed,Doug Johnston
Sunday 02 September 2012 00:36

Anyone coming to this standalone book expecting the dour, methodical atmosphere of Henning Mankell's famous Wallander crime novels is in for something of a surprise.

Originally published in the author's native Sweden in 2001, this quirky offering sets out to tackle the weighty topics of immigration, and how refugees affect Swedish society, but it fails to deliver much in the way of insight, despite the subject matter obviously being close to Mankell's heart.

The main problems with The Shadow Girls are to do with tone and a lack of suspense. Tonally, this novel is all over the place, as if Mankell couldn't decide what kind of book to write. The novel opens with a moving account from an African girl called Tea-Bag of her escape from a Spanish refugee camp and her journey towards Sweden. Much later on, we get two more touching and harrowing stories from Tanya, a Russian girl sold into prostitution, and Leyla, a young Iranian woman oppressed to the point of suffocation by her overbearing male relatives.

But in between these tales we get large swathes of very broad satire, as we follow the trials and tribulations of Jesper Humlin, a rather shallow and arrogant Swedish poet. After a chance encounter with the young immigrant women, Humlin has a drunken epiphany: that he is going to help them write their stories, or maybe use their stories to write something worthwhile himself.

Humlin is a constant figure of fun to Mankell, who portrays him as the most idiotic buffoon, detracting from any kind of character development – despite a plot seemingly custom designed to deliver transformation. There is also a running gag about crime writing that is stretched so thin as to be utterly transparent by the end of the novel: Humlin's agent wants him to write a crime novel and refuses to take no for an answer, meanwhile everyone around him seems to be writing crime novels – his mother, his girlfriend, his stockbroker and his biggest rival poet.

For all its faults and oddities of style, The Shadow Girls has, I think, the same intention as Mankell's Wallander series. The author is using the story to look at underlying changes to Swedish society. But the lack of dramatic tension seriously detracts from that examination. Essentially, there is no plot here to speak of.

And Humlin's pretentious naivety doesn't really convince either. Would he really be a lauded and prize-winning poet if he had never observed the changes in society around him? When he travels to a suburb of Gothenburg inhabited mostly by immigrants, he acts like he's arrived on a different planet. Mankell has obviously set up this initial lack of experience to make his transformation by the end of the novel all the greater. But it never seems real. It is a well-intentioned book, but seriously flawed.

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