‘I always feel more lonely when it’s cold.’ So begins Italian Shoes, Henning Mankell’s 22nd book to be translated into English, a book dominated by those twin ice-caps: loneliness and cold.
Our narrator is Frederick Welin, a lonely 66 year old grouch, who lives in self-imposed exile on a remote island in the Swedish archipelago. Each morning, he cuts a hole in the ice with his axe, ‘a black shadow against all the white’, and takes what he calls a bath, submerging himself briefly in the blinding cold of the water in order to reassure himself that he is still alive. It is on one such morning (shortly after he decides that ‘my life would continue as it had done hitherto. There would be no significant change’) that a figure appears in the distance on the ice, the figure of Harriet, his one true love, a woman he abandoned many years previously, leaving Sweden for the US to complete his studies to become a doctor. Without telling him in so many words, Welin realises that Harriet isn’t long for the world and agrees to fulfil one last wish: she wants to see the black pool that Welin and his father swam in decades earlier. This last wish, however, gives rise to a subsequent wish that affectively alters the course of Welin’s life.
Mankell’s writing is as stark and lucid as the bare and bleak landscapes in which his characters operate; and yet, unlike Paul Auster, say – whose sentences Mankell’s closely resemble – Mankell isn’t afraid to have his characters voice obvious moments of self-recognition, in which they learn something previously unrecognised about themselves. This can, of course, give rise to odd inflections of The Wonder Years (‘it was at that moment that I realised’) albeit The Wonder Years by way of Walter Mosley (Mankell’s non-Wallander novels resemble Mosley’s non-Easy Rawlin’s novels in their loose plotting, random cause and effect narratives). Italian Shoes pulses from the opening meeting on the ice, opening to include several new characters – his daughter Louise, a former patient Agnes, a young runaway called Sima – each of whom eventually descend upon Welin’s island retreat, changing Welin and his home in profound and subtle ways.
What is Italian Shoes about? Arguably, it’s a reductive question that doesn’t suit the novel’s character-driven passage. If one were to push the point, though, it’s about what happens to a man after he thinks his life is over when he discovers that it isn’t. The novel feels as lined and wise as the face we see staring back from Mankell’s author photograph. There is wisdom here, the wisdom you’d get from standing on the ice harbouring an island in the Swedish archipelago, day after day, year after year. From the crunch of the snow beneath Welin’s feet to the daily logging of detail in his inscrutable logbook, Italian Shoes conjures a world as tangible as the world the reader experiences around the book as they read (you can step from one world to another, as if through a wardrobe from here to Narnia). Seasoned Mankell fans may miss the savage page-turning thrill you get from Wallander (Italian Shoes is a different book altogether, stately where Wallander is savage, restrained where Wallander is passionate, in his own way), but as long as Mankell occasionally digs out the odd Pyramid or two, who are we to complain?
Any Cop?: A beautiful and bleak treatise on life and death, ageing and self-discovery, told with humour, resignation and regret.