Henning Mankell does a fine line in isolated and difficult men. Fans will be familiar with his anti-hero cop Wallander; in his latest novel The Shadow Girls, we meet narcissistic and self-indulgent poet Jesper Humlin who is looking for inspiration to sell more copies of his obscure poems.
His book sales are rapidly declining, his demanding girlfriend wants him to commit to having a family, his eccentric mother expects him for dinner at midnight, his publisher wants him to take a new tack and his only ‘friend’, another writer, has come up with an idea for a crime novel that is sure to outsell Humlin. Then his stock-broker casually informs him his investments are rapidly becoming worthless.
Against this chaotic backdrop, Humlin travels to Gothenburg for a poetry reading, where a chance encounter with young African refugee Tea-Bag leads him into the shadow world of the immigrant experience in Sweden.
Tea-Bag has fled a refugee camp in Spain for the promise of a new life in Sweden. He also meets Tania, who has made a long and dangerous journey from Eastern Europe to escape the horrors of human trafficking. Leyla has come with her family from Iran. All of them are facing different challenges in their new home.
Initially Humlin dismisses the girls and their problems, but soon begins to see how he could milk their experiences for his next work and get everybody off his back.
However these three strong women have voices, and very different ideas about what role he will play in their lives. This is where the novel becomes less about Humlin and more about the shadow world of the immigrant experience.
Mankell shines his light on a Sweden few know about and gives a voice to a disaffected people who may normally not be heard.
This novel is a bit of a rollercoaster – some parts are light and humorous (Jesper’s experiences with his mother) while other parts swing to very dark (Leyla’s tale of her sister).
While not ‘enjoyable’ it does make compelling reading. If you’re new to Mankell, start with his best-selling Wallander series – The Shadow Girls is probably one for the hard-core fans.
The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell
Publisher: Random House