Originally published in 2001, and only just translated into English some eleven years later, Henning Mankell’s The Shadow Girls is another example of Mankell trying his hand out at something other than the crime novels for which he is famous – but unlike more recent examples of his ability to don different hats, as seen in Daniel and Italian Shoes, The Shadow Girls feels like a hodge-podge of good intentions stirred up in a comic stew (a comic stew, if I can push the metaphor beyond breaking point, likely to give you gas and have you groaning wondering what the hell it was you ate).
Jesper Humlin is a middle-aged poet whose books don’t sell all that well and whose publisher is going on at him to write a crime novel. Humlin’s life is complicated by his mother, a ninety year old harridan given to carping on about his crappy books (when she isn’t earning a pretty penny running a sex line for older gentlemen), his girlfriend Andrea (who wants a baby but hardly spends all of her time breaking poor Humlin’s balls), his broker, who appears to have lost all of his money, and a rival author who really has turned his hand to writing crime novels. Engaged on a poorly attended reading tour for his latest book, which is flying out of the shops at a rate of about three a week, he becomes involved, in a roundabout way, with three illegal immigrants and decides to write a book about their experiences (to the chagrin of his publisher who has already commissioned the artwork for a crime novel). Despite changing their names and their stories, we get a glimpse into the world of the illegal immigrant and a rumination of the changing face of Sweden thanks to the suggestion of what may be 10,000 or much such people hiding in the sidelines and shadows of Swedish society. Squatting in houses they learn are empty via a network of whispers and gossip, robbing phones when deemed necessary, and occasionally huffing urinal soap for the ammonia kick, Humlin glimpses another world: a world in which people are forced to become prostitutes against their will, in which borders are porous and papers merely a hindrance to occupation.
Readers of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand know that immigration can be handled sensitively; at the same time, sensitivity does not have to preclude narrative. The Shadow Girls feels like a book inspired by political goodwill, a desire to make readers see things differently, which is no bad thing. Unfortunately, the plot, what plot there is, lurches episodically (and repetitively) from one apparently random scene to another, and what climax there is feels tacked on, wrapped up, tied together by convenience rather than dramatic necessity. Kicking off with an arch high tone like Martin Amis’ The Information, the novel quickly gets bogged down in the stories of the shadow girls themselves, and the stories feel same-y, written as they are in a sort of freeflowing semi-poetic splurgey stream of consciousness that gives the novel an adolescent feel. As a reader, it’s hard to care, even if your politics are such that you actually do care about the issues themselves. It’s all somewhat bleeding heart and it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to make you laugh or think (it succeeds in doing neither, ultimately).
Any Cop?: Ultimately, then, one for the fans – and the forgiving fans at that.