A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

I wanted to like this, I really did. I have devoured Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels, even watched Kenneth Branagh’s PBS versions (better than I expected). However, I just couldn’t.
Days after finishing it, some scenes came back to me, that is true. But, overall, I just couldn’t accept the premise. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, the novel doesn’t seem from that time; it feels more modern. Perhaps it is the translation. It is difficult to tell since I don’t read Swedish!

A Treacherous Paradise begins in Sweden. A young girl, Hanna Renstrom, leaves her isolated rural home because her family can no longer feed all its members. Hanna secures a place as a cook on a Swedish steamship bound for Australia. She marries the third mate, who promptly dies of fever off the coast of Africa. When the ship reaches Lourenço Marques, Hanna jumps ship and make a new life.

She checks in to a hotel and has a miscarriage. When she recovers, she learns that she is in Lourenço Marques’s most prestigious brothel, O Paraiso. After just a few weeks the brothel keeper asks her to marry him. Then he also dies, and Hanna finds herself running the business in his place — with considerable self-assurance and success.

Hanna discovers that paradise can be treacherous. Hanna tries to save a young black woman who has killed her white husband. When she is found dead, horribly mutilated, in her jail cell, Hanna finds some comfort in the arms of the victim’s brother. She sells the brothel, leaves Lourenço Marques, and travels north to Beira. There, in the Africa Hotel, she hides the diary she’s been keeping since coming to Africa and disappears. She is never heard of again.

In his Afterwood, Mankell explains that there was, in fact, a Swedish woman who ran a brothel in Lourenço Marques at the beginning of the 20th century, but about whom nothing more is known. From this material, Mankell has constructed this story.

Could an eighteen-year-old be mature to handle all that Hanna does? It was difficult for me to reconcile the thoughts and actions of this character with Mankell’s description. The narrative was meandering; the story of Isabel seemed contrived, serving only to emphasize the racial component of life in colonial Africa. The finding of her diary in 2002 Mozambique in the crumbling Africa Hotel was theatrical.

The book felt hung together, not cohesive or believable. Mankell divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique; being intimate with these two countries, he seems to have seized on the story of the Swedish woman and imagined her story in an attempt to connect the two places. For me, it just wasn’t successful.

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