Tag Archives: novel

“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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Donna Meredith’s “The Color of Lies”

In the season of Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign, the stability of a small South Georgia town is threatened by racial stresses and strains. A racial slur is found on a school blackboard. A dynamic Afro-American minister threatens a law suit against the school system, challenging its treatment of Black students. Protagonist Molly Culpepper, a teacher at Alderson High School, is deeply disturbed by her inability to adjust the attitude and behavior of J. D., an embittered Black teenager whose conduct is disruptive and whose life path seems a path to incarceration. 

Molly’s situation is difficult in several additional ways. A single mother since the death of her policeman husband, she is having trouble with her fourteen year old son Graham, who is going through the customary steps of rebellious teenage experimentation. Her father, a blunt and often crude character, is killing himself with alcohol. The school’s new principal is changing priorities in ways that seem counterproductive and that predict more hours of effort for the already overtaxed teaching staff. He is, as well, interfering with Molly’s “freedom of the press” approach to the school newspaper, which she advises.

Meredith builds suspense on many levels. Will the lawsuit aggravate the divisions within the community? Will J.D.’s threatening behavior turn violent? Will Molly lose control of her class and her career? Will the athletic competition spectacular between students and teachers raise the money needed to fund important school programs that are beyond the existing budget?

Will lies people have told themselves and others undermine trust and damage relationships?

Donna Meredith

Meredith’s title, The Color of Lies, resonates throughout the novel in many ways. We know how tempting it is to mask the truth about attitudes regarding skin color. We know have often lies are spoken and maintained to avoid bringing people pain or embarrassment – the so-called “little white lies.” In Meredith’s story, lies have kept from view the true facts about J.D’s father’s death and about a relationship between Molly’s late husband, David, and J.D.’s mother.

As Donna Meredith plumbs the practical and moral consequences of lies, she also builds a complex microcosm of the New South. Her novel is populated with a large cast of varied characters. These include her own family, the students in her classes, the other teachers and staffers at the high school, and many other townspeople, including Molly’s new neighbor, C. Lodge Piscetelli, at once a lawyer and a computer expert. Her portrait of a community, however, is more than a collection of its residents: it involves a sense of history, of braided cultural strands, of habits of mind that create fissures as well as bonds. . . .

To see this review in its entirety, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here: http://southernlitreview.com/reviews/the-color-of-lies-by-donna-meredith.htm

To find out more about this Talahassee writer, click here: http://www.donnameredith.com/

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BOOK BEAT 61 – G. P. Walmsley

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   January 2-8, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Neapolitan G. P. Walmsley provides a racy, colorful entertainment with his first novel, “The Virtuoso: A Love Story in Scarlet.” The story takes readers through about three decades, tracing the life of John (or “Jack”) Dupree from his days as a wartime New Orleans street kid of eleven through his ups and downs as a musician, friend, lover, and human being. The part of the portrait that illumines Jack’s coming of age in the 1950s, a section that includes his service in the Korean War, is even better at capturing the feel of a decade than the delineation of the other periods – and this sense of time and place (including St. Louis and New York) is always keen.  

Jack’s early education takes place in the saloons and jazz clubs of his native city, and his passion for jazz, still mainly the province of black musicians, is matched only by his passion for women. His sexual experience begins early, and it continues to define him through the decades the follow. Walmsley draws this formative New Orleans milieu quite convincingly, and along the way he probes the racial tensions of the times. He also probes the dynamics by which racial barriers give way to mutual respect among dedicated, skilled musicians in the world of blues and jazz.

The world of nightclubs, whether sleazy or posh, is interwoven with the world of prostitution. Jack lives in that world as well. When his mother dies, Jack moves on to live with an aunt who is a madam in St. Louis. Soon enough, he meets her friend Sophia, also in that trade, with whom he has a most passionate and complex relationship. Sophia supports, marries, and occasionally torments the much younger hero, helping him to realize his dreams of becoming a top-level musician. Along the way, Jack is transformed into John, and he temporarily puts aside the jazz clarinet for the classical piano. Private tutors, Julliard, minor league competitions and concerts, and an ambitious agent-manager bring Dupree to the threshold of fame and fortune.

Though Sophia tries to bury her past and develops a successful Manhattan boutique, criminal prosecutions for prostitution and tax evasion threaten her – and thus threaten her husband’s chance at the gold ring. In part for this reason, they decide to divorce, but the reader learns of other motives as well.  Incidentally, Walmsley’s background in law enforcement adds credibility to several aspects of his plot.

As much as he cares for Sophia, Jack/John Dupree is tempted by other women, and he strays. Sophia has secrets as well, which I’ll leave for readers to discover.

What Walmsley does best is project the ecstatic moments of creative release – those times when an artist achieves a transcendent state. Both implicitly and explicitly, Walmsley likens this ultimate euphoria to sexual release. There’s nothing new in this comparison, but the author evokes it with skill and force.

He also does a fine job in creating a rich collection of minor characters, including Cotton Blanchard, a wise, caring black musician who becomes Dupree’s mentor and father figure. Dupree’s Aunt Clara is also well-drawn, as is Sophia’s lawyer and a young female violinist named Laura.

What does not serve Walmsley or the reader well is the extremely high proportion of technical errors in the writing: misused words, faulty punctuation, words and phrases set in italics for no good reason, and grammatical lapses of all kinds riddle the narrative and almost undermine Walmsley’s accomplishment as a story-teller. I say “almost” because the vigor of the work and the appeal of his characters and plot line somehow rise above these frequent distractions. It is unintentionally ironic that G. P. Walmsley actually offers thanks for editorial assistance. If only he had received skilled professional help, “The Virtuoso” could have been so much better. The patient, forgiving reader can still enjoy a sexy, high-powered thrill ride with rich nostalgia for decades past.

“The Virtuoso” is available from online book dealers, including the publisher authorhouse.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference and Authors & Books Festival presented by the Naples Press Club.

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