The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell

I have read all the Wallender novels and was wretched when Mankell ended that excellent series. I decided to investigate his other novels. I’m very glad I did. Mankell creates and develops exceptional characters and his plotting is superb. This book is very different from Mankell’s Wallender crime novels; it is an exploration of the underground world of illegal immigrants who have made it from all over the world to what they believed would be sanctuary in Sweden. The only mystery is the girls’ backgrounds and what will happen to them.

Jesper Humlin is a middle-aged published poet, beset with a plethora of tribulations. His last book has sold exactly three copies, and his publisher is pressuring him to write a crime novel (irony?). (It seems that every character in the book is planning to write a crime novel.) His girlfriend wants a baby, his mother, eighty-seven years old, sleeps during the day and summons him to talk and eat at midnight. It turns out that she is also working for a porn phone company targeted to very mature male clientele. His stockbroker has put his money in stocks that are rapidly declining and blissfully assures Jesper that he’ll make the money back in ten or fifteen years.

While he tries his best to avoid writing that crime novel, Jesper goes out of town for poem readings. He decides to visit an old friend Pelle Törnblom, who runs a community boxing club. Törnblom arranges a writing seminar for Jesper for the people in the neighborhood. As a result, Jesper meets three girls, Teabag, Tanya, and Leyla, who are from Africa, Russia, and Iran, respectively. He hears their stories, none of which can he entirely trust, but which plunge him into a world he had no clue existed in Sweden. He tries his utmost to help the girls get their stories told and to extricate them from the hell they have experienced in getting to Sweden and what they are experiencing in their new home. He fails in the latter; we are left to wonder whether he will accomplish the former.

The girls’ stories are all heart-wrenching, but the novel is not the downer it could be. Mankell mixes in humor from the girls’ survival schemes and Jesper’s personal dilemmas.

Mankell is politically active. Wikipedia reports that Mankell participated in the Protests of 1968 in Sweden, protesting against, among other things, the Vietnam War and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. He was involved with the society Folket i Bild/Kulturfront which focused on cultural policy studies. During his stay in Norway in the 1970s, he got in contact with the far-left Norwegian Workers’ Communist Party (AKP-ml) and took an active part in their actions. In 2002 he gave financial support by buying stocks for 50,000 NOK in the Norwegian left-wing newspaper Klassekampen.

His website discusses his dream that his memory books project about HIV and AIDS one day will be stacked in the new library in Alexandria . Together with PLAN Henning Mankell initiated this project to try to raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS issue. Clearly, the issues in The Shadow Girls are close to his heart.


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