I am a big fan of Mankell’s work, not just his Wallender books, but all of it. I know he tried to step away from the Wallender books at times. There’s a part of The Shadow Girls that seems to be him castigating himself for not writing something more meaningful than crime novels. Yet, I think it was the seriousness of the issues Mankell raised – such as the fear of immigrants – that elevates them above most of the rest of the flock. In The Shadow Girls, Mankell again has immigrants on his mind as his protagonist (alter ego?) gets pressured into conducting a writing seminar for three shadow girls. Much of the novel is taken up with these women telling their stories. This brings the plot, such as it is, full circle. Jesper Humlin, a consistent but seemingly unremarkable poet, is being pressured by his publisher to write a crime novel. Everyone around him, including his mother, is writing one. (Was this really the perception Mankell thought people had of his work? That anyone could do it?) But he holds out. He wants to write a book about immigrants. The Shadow Girls turns out to be that book. Here’s a remarkable excerpt from one of the stories, told to Jesper by Tea-Bag, who has re-christened herself, for a new life requires a new name and, more practically, any use of her real name can jeopardize her status:
I know that the bridge we all thought we saw as we stood on the beach in the northernmost part of Africa, that continent we were fleeing and already mourning, that bridge will one day be built. It will be built, if only because the mountains of corpses pressed together on the bottom of the ocean will one day rise above the sea like a new country and a bridge of skulls and bones will form the bridge that no one, no guards, dogs, drunk sailors, or smugglers will be able to topple. Only then will this cruel insanity come to a stop, these anxious flocks of people who are driven on in desperation only to end up living their lives in the underworld, becoming the cavemen of modern times.