Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell
US: New Press. April 1, 2009. Isbn: 1595584366
In his 26th novel, Sweden’s top crime writer has eschewed the genre that has seen him sell 30 million books. Even so, fans of his Inspector Wallander novels will find much of what they love about the Skåne detective in the narrator of “Italian Shoes”—only given even more depth by the constant focus on a man struggling with guilt and emotional silence.
Fredrik is a surgeon who abandoned his career a decade ago because of a mistake he made during an operation. He refused to acknowledge his error and went to live alone on a remote island. One morning he sees a woman standing on the frozen sea. He discovers that she’s the girlfriend he abandoned as a young man.
Harriet’s arrival forces Fredrik to meet a series of people from his past. He thought he could cut himself off on his island. As he realizes he can’t, he finds the allure of companionship attractive, but struggles to manage these new relationships.
This is a devastatingly honest and keenly personal novel. It ranks with Norwegian Per Petterson’s “Out Stealing Horses” for its marvelous portrayal of withdrawal from society—and its consequences. Mankell writes with a measured pace that’s in tune with the frozen weather and the slow body of the aging Fredrik.
Though “Italian Shoes” is a departure for Mankell, he examines a topic common to crime novels—death. But he reverses the crime novel’s way of looking at death. He’s not concerned here with how death occurs. Rather he wants to understand why anyone should care whether they live or die.
Crime writers create a violent death, to show how the remaining characters experience life in extreme circumstances. Here Mankell depicts a man who essentially stopped living and who rediscovers life when faced with the impending death of Harriet.
“Before I die,” Fredrik says, “I must know why I’ve lived.” In his dour, bitter way, Mankell has the answer.