Back in 2006, Henning Mankell wrote a novel called Italian Shoes, about a man called Fredrik Welin, who lived on a remote archipelago in Stockholm. After the Fire picks up with Fredrik eight years later. “My house,” Fredrik tells us, “burned down on an autumn night almost a year ago.” What follows is the story of that year, what happens when a person loses everything. You don’t need to have read Italian Shoes. After the Fire is standalone.
We follow Fredrik as he gradually rebuilds his life, moving into the caravan his daughter Louise occupied when she came to visit, struggling with a random assortment of clothing donated by friends, dealing with the police and the insurance who suspect him of being an arsonist, and distracting himself with slightly amorous thoughts regarding a young journalist interested in the fire, called Lisa.
What makes After the Fire of particular interest to Mankell fans is the fact that he wrote the book whilst struggling with cancer (as detailed in his nonfiction, Quicksand) and so it functions much as Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night did – becoming more urgent because a writer chose to do this and not something else with his last few remaining months (and it may be that, unlike Haruf’s book, which was written after Haruf knew his condition was terminal and was thus imbued with a funereal calm, Mankell began the book in a fighting spirit and then realised it was a battle he was not going to win during the course of the book).
Readers of Mankell’s page-turning detective fiction may find the mystery at the heart of the book (who started the fire) a somewhat slow burn (sorry), but it is a novel more in the vein of a Scandi Murakami, in that we spend a lot of time in Fredrik’s company, as he eats, as he dresses, as he ruminates on his life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are moments that feel like authentic howls of pain:
“I am afraid I am hopelessly, furiously envious of all those who will continue to live when I am dead. I am equally embarrassed and terrified by the thought. I try to deny it, but it recurs with increasing frequency the older I get.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more lonely in my life. I can’t imagine what it will be like when I am dead.”
“I do not fear death. Death must be freedom from fear. The ultimate freedom.”
“We don’t just die alone. We never know how we are going to die, even if a medical diagnosis can be made.”
Curiously, though, the book isn’t depressing. There is an Arctic calm to things, certainly, and Mankell’s chill eye for observing the world is as keen as ever. Here he is in the aftermath of what turns out to be the first fire:
“The coastguard’s firefighting equipment was used to pump up seawater and spray it on the burning building but it was too late. All it changed was the smell. Charred oak timbers and wall panels, burned wallpaper and linoleum flooring combined with salt water to give off an unforgettable stench. When dawn broke, all that remained was a smoking, stinking ruin.”
After the Fire is low concept, adult, its twists and turns unexpected and unusual. We learn of Lisa’s past, become embroiled in Louise’s present, which takes Fredrik to Paris, where he meets her other half, and her other half’s damaged brother. Fredrik is a grumpy, curmudgeonly presence, moaning about his wellington boots, moaning about clothes made in China, but endearing for all that he is typical of his generation (and the interest is compounded by the fact that Mankell himself was far more left leaning, as his place on the flotilla of boats which tried to break the Israeli embargo on Gaza Strip demonstrates).
And, of course, After the Fire functions as Mankell’s full stop, the last word in his legacy. Undoubtedly, the dozen or so books involving Wallander and his daughter are currently the books he is most famous for, but for this reader it is his more literary work, The Man From Beijing, for instance, the aforementioned Italian Shoes, the historical novel Daniel, that cements his reputation as one of the greats and underlines the sense of loss you get when you read a book like After the Fire.
Any Cop?: Sad that we won’t be getting any more new Mankell books, but as final works go, After the Fire is a fine and fitting, if sombre, salute.