Best known for his Inspector Wallander series, which has been converted into two highly popular film series, Henning Mankell shows off his considerable writing talents with a stand-alone novel, THE SHADOW GIRLS. Originally written in 2001 and now available for the first time in English, it is both heartbreaking and at times darkly humorous. Mankell’s novels always deal with serious social issues and deeply drawn characters, and his latest is no exception.
As a poet, Jesper Humlin has achieved a modest level of success. He has a following of sorts for his work and received some critical acclaim. Understanding that the publishing industry can be quite fickle, Jesper’s editor is asking him to step out of his comfort zone and pen a work of fiction. Specifically, he wants Jesper to write a crime novel to help boost sales.
"Brimming with social commentary as all of the lives involve intertwine, THE SHADOW GIRLS...is a serious novel with a lot of heart and a nice departure for regular readers of Mankell’s books."
Jesper resists this request and is quite flummoxed when his publisher actually begins marketing the non-existent novel to which he has given little to no time. Additionally, Jesper’s world seems to be closing in around him. He has challenging relationships with both his girlfriend and over-bearing mother. To make matters worse, a bad investment by his stockbroker has put him in serious financial straits, so he has no choice but to look toward doing the crime novel in addition to taking on alternate forms of income.
In a radical move, Jesper leaves his cozy home and travels to the Swedish town of Gothenburg to give a reading of his work. It is at this point where things take on an almost mythical feel. Names, places and stories all seem to blend and change, and the reader will be challenged to determine what is really happening as opposed to what might be simply a trick of Jesper’s mind.
Things really take off when Jesper comes into contact with the “Shadow Girls.” Leyla from Iran, Tanya from Russia, and Tea-Bag from Africa by way of Kurdistan all latch on to Jesper and become his pupils. Initially, they are students in a series of impromptu writing workshops, but their relationship begins to get much deeper. Each of these immigrant women have interesting stories to tell that will cause much empathy and heartbreak as tales of displacement, abuse and human trafficking are all present in their backgrounds.
Jesper may have found the muse he so desperately needed to kick-start his own writing career, but as he gets more and more involved in the lives of the Shadow Girls, he recognizes that this will come at a cost he may not be able to pay. Brimming with social commentary as all of the lives involve intertwine, THE SHADOW GIRLS --- translated by Ebba Segerberg, a long-time collaborator of his --- is a serious novel with a lot of heart and a nice departure for regular readers of Mankell’s books.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 30, 2012
The Shadow Girls