The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell
Other crime books by Henning Mankell
(Crime fiction books not featuring Wallander)
The Shadow Girls was first published in Sweden in 2001 as «Tea Bag». And now, in 2012, it has been translated into English by Ebba Segerberg and published in United Kingdom and United States. If you assume that the long delay implies that Kurt Wallander probably is not featured in this book, you are quite right! What is more, this is not one of Mankell's bestselling thrillers.
That said, it is harder to say what it is than to state what it is not. It has been described as «The inspirational tale of a writer who finds himself caught up in the extraordinary stories of young immigrant girls in Sweden.» And that's about right. It's a tale of a fictional Swedish writer (not Henning Mankell!, but a fellow named Jesper Humlin) desperately searching for a story. His publisher has already started to promote his next book as a crime fiction, so now he needs to come up with a tale.
He encounters the story of “Tea Bag”, a refugee from a nameless African country who has escaped drowning in her flight from her land and finds herself incarcerated in a Spanish camp. Then he encounters other stories of other girls. Three girls. Tea-Bag, Leyla, and Tania. Three stories of profound challenges. But not really crime fiction, as Humlin's publisher would have liked. Instead, “The Shadow Girls” is about three girls from around the world and their encounter with a poet, each facing different challenges in their lives. Three tales that, taken together, also becomes a tale of Sweden and it's handling of immigrants.
I liked The Shadow Girls. But it is not one of Mankell's best. Not nearly. Very different from the books in his Wallander series in most ways, yet it shares the social conscience that underlies even the books about Sweden's most famous detective. The book is at times funny, at times deeply sad. It has depth and wit. There is humor and there is heartbreak. The pace is good. It is well-written and the story is eloquently told. And all in all I found it a good read, but definitely very different from other Mankell books I have read. The Shadow Girls may be a disappointment to many, but will probably please longtime fans of Mankell who have read well beyond his Wallander series.
Reviews of The Shadow Girls:
«This quirky offering sets out to tackle the weighty topics of immigration and how refugees affect Swedish society» (Doug Johnston, Independent on Sunday)
«As we are drawn into the shadow world of immigrant life in Sweden, Mankell's blend of comedy and moving drama provides a voice for those who lose theirs on their journey from oppression to imagined freedom; freedom which is often transient and blighted with prejudice and racism» (Irish Examiner)