Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson

I think of films, not novels, when trying to describe DEPTHS: It's part Ingmar Bergman, part Alfred Hitchcock --- masters of the symbolic, the noir-ish and the macabre --- with maybe a dash of Ripley's Game thrown in. However, Ripley --- in the film and the Patricia Highsmith novel on which it's based --- is clearly a psychopath; the suspense is in seeing how long and how successfully he can pass for normal. In contrast, the protagonist of DEPTHS, a naval officer by the name of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, initially appears sane, albeit terrifically repressed.

Sure, he has issues: a father complex (Tobiasson is his mother's name, inserted for protective purposes: "His father was dead now, but dead people can also be a threat"); a highly ritualized marriage to Kristina Tacker, a woman who mysteriously has retained her maiden name; and seriously weird dreams (horses being whipped?), but he seems more control freak than madman.

When we first encounter him, it is wartime, 1914, and he is engaged in a covert mission to the Baltic Sea --- charting the depths of certain sea routes used by the Swedish navy to make sure ships won't run aground. His profession has to do with measurement, and he seems to conduct his life and manage his psyche with the same pitiless precision. Then disturbing things start happening. A seaman falls ill with appendicitis and dies before he can reach a hospital; the body of a German soldier is found floating in the ocean (although Sweden has remained neutral, Russian and German ships are battling not far away); and a captain drops dead of a heart attack.

Most fatally, Tobiasson-Svartman rows to Halsskär, an obscure and apparently unoccupied island near his ship's anchorage, and there he discovers a young woman named Sara Fredrika --- a widow living in unimaginable isolation --- and conceives a desperate passion for her. Sara Fredrika is completely unlike Kristina Tacker, with her cool beauty and fragile china animals (the two women are clearly conceived as opposites). She is dirty and smells; in her primitivism she is irresistible.

Tobiasson-Svartman is hooked. He returns home to Stockholm, where his wife tells him she is pregnant, but he cannot stay away from Halsskär and Sara Fredrika. In his desperation to return to the island undetected, he even walks over the frozen sea (like many scenes in DEPTHS, this journey is strikingly and memorably cinematic). Helpless in his obsession, he squanders his savings, deceives his wife and employer, and finally commits murder; as his double life unravels, we begin to see that he is not just the victim of an inappropriate lust --- he is quite insane. It all ends just about as badly as one can imagine.

The wildness of this gothic tale is echoed in the oceanic setting --- more than a setting, actually, for in Tobiasson-Svartman's fevered mind nature is treacherously alive (rocks turning into beasts; the sea "keeping watch on him, like a sharp-eyed animal"), and Mankell is constantly making parallels between the unconscious mind and the fathomless sea ("He was mapping navigable channels so that other people would be able to travel in safety, but the charts he was mapping for himself led to chaos." And again: "He had measured the depth of the sea…but he had not succeeded in coordinating his discoveries with the navigable channels inside himself.").

I must confess that this relentless, heavy-handed symbolism got me down after a while (as did the oddly brief chapters, some as short as a single sentence). Perhaps it is a European style of novel that doesn't appeal to me, or maybe the fault of any literature in translation, but despite its haunting seascape the book seemed to me pretentious and arty rather than profound.

It's not that I insist on Mankell sticking to the known territory of his mystery novels. He is allowed to experiment. But here, it seems to me, his usually sure touch has deserted him. In his thrillers, as in DEPTHS, the realm of the abnormal and disturbing (in the form of murder) is juxtaposed with matter-of-fact life and daily routine. But Mankell's finest creation, the police inspector Wallander --- instead of being consumed by the craziness of his job --- remains magnificently human and absolutely sane. He is flawed, vulnerable, overweight, lonely, sometimes depressed, not that good at being a parent, husband or lover --- but he is magnificent at solving murders.

I wish Mankell had dispatched Wallander on his own secret mission to save DEPTHS from turning into a chilly intellectual conceit. With him tracking Tobiasson-Svartman, the book might have had a pulse.


Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on April 2, 2007

Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: New Press
  • ISBN-10: 1595580891
  • ISBN-13: 9781595580894