“The Shadow Girls,” by Henning Mankell

The Shadow Girls,  by Henning Mankell. Translated by Ebba Segerberg. The New Press. 336 pages. $26.95.

Henning Mankell’s The Shadow Girls is a moving, perplexing, and nightmarishly humorous novel.  First published in Sweden in 2001, it is now available to English readers. The protagonist, Jesper Humlin, is a well-regarded Swedish poet whose life has become routine. His girlfriend strongly articulates her need for marriage and children, a desire he does not share.  His unappreciative mother, who always belittles his achievements and views, provides another source of tension in his life.  To subdue such discomforts, Humlin has numbed his sensitivity, and with it his spirit.   

Moreover, he is having trouble making decisions, or even facing the fact that decisions need to be made. Humlin is at the mercy of those prepared to make decisions for him. These include his publisher, who urges him to take up crime fiction. In fact, he tells Humlin that he has no choice. Humlin, outraged, refuses. Likewise, his stockbroker, blandly reviewing the collapse of the poet’s portfolio, offers him no satisfactory advice except not to worry. Some day his stocks will rebound.

The poet is drawn in a new direction by his unexpected engagement with three young women, struggling immigrants with different backgrounds but the shared situation of living on society’s margins. Tea-Bag fled from a sorry existence in Nigeria to a refugee camp in Spain and then fled again to Sweden. Tanya, from Russia, was deceived by tales of improving her desperate situation and fell into a nightmare life as a prisoner in the human trafficking underworld.  Having escaped, she, too, is now an illegal living by her wits in Sweden. Leyla immigrated with her family from Iran. However, she remains oppressed by her father’s cruel manner of controlling her life.

All three live in “a depressingly generic city suburb” of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. Many of the novel’s darker scenes are set there, and in particular at a boxing club run by Humlin’s old friend, Törnblum, who insists that Humlin teach these young women how to write about their lives. The poet is unsure about this undertaking and affronted, as with his publisher and broker, by how his friend is forcing the direction of Humlin’s life.  But he goes forward anyway, because he is drawn to their desperation and senses that finding out about their lives may help him reclaim his own. 

Should he help them escape from the shadow world they live in? Do they want his help? Can he draw their stories out of them? Will anyone care if he succeeds? After beginning a series of informal workshops, Humlin faces new frustrations: the girls’ distrust, their faulty command of Swedish, and their continuing need for the protection of the shadows. Fear and distrust rule their lives. Slowly, usually in two or three bursts of nervous speech, their stories emerge. Intermittently, Humlin toys with the idea of using their stories as his raw material and writing a book about them, in place of the crime novel his publisher expects. . . .

There is much more to the full review. See it here: Washington Independent Review of Books » The Shadow Girls

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