One of the advantages of the success of Henning Mankell’s detective novels is that it has led to the publication of many of his other, more literary, novels in English. Both tend to share an atmosphere of Scandinavian gloominess, but that can be a harder sell when there isn’t a murder to solve. Italian Shoes is no different: superficially a novel about old age and death. However, like much of Mankell’s work, it more about how we should live our lives than how we should end them.
The novel is narrated by Frederick Welin. Once a successful surgeon, he now lives alone (apart form a cat and a dog) on an island surrounded by a sea of ice. It isn’t difficult, then, to spot the first metaphor: he is a man who has deliberately isolated himself from the world, with no emotional ties. A rotting boat further suggests his isolation. Every morning he cuts a hole in the ice and plunges naked into it:
“Every day I jump down into my black hole in order to get the feeling that I’m still alive.”
He hasn’t, however, entirely given up on making a connection with the world beyond his island:
“I suppose, really, that there will be somebody out there one of these days, a black shadow against all the white…”
One day that “black figure, a silhouette, outlined against all the white” appears, a woman that he once loved, but abandoned many years before, leaving to study in America and never getting back in touch. This abandonment begins even before he reaches America as he the date of departure he gives Harriet is the day after he leaves. Harriet is dying, and the reason she gives for finally contacting Frederick after all this time is that she wants him to keep a promise he once made to her to take her to a pool in the forest before she dies. The first half of the novel is immured in death: before Harriet arrives, Frederick finds a dead seagull; on their journey a dog begins to follow their car and when they return it to its home they find its owner, an old woman, dead; in a café there is the skull of “an old bear that simply lay down by a log pile and died.” When they finally reach the pool, which is of course frozen over, Frederick falls through the ice and almost dies. The other theme, however, which has been running through their journey, is their growing closeness. Often this is a physical closeness, forced on them by the availability of only one bed, and here as Harriet must heat Frederick with her own body. Eventually she reveals the real reason for her visit by taking him to meet his daughter.
Frederick and Harriet’s daughter, Louise, is also a rather isolated figure, a middle-aged woman living alone in a caravan, spending her time writing protest letters to world leaders. Frederick finds these new relationships difficult and not all goes smoothly, but he does maintain a determination to make them work. We also discover one of the reasons for his self-imposed exile, an operation that went wrong when he amputated the wrong arm of a promising swimmer. It was not guilt that made him give up his profession, but a feeling of being unfairly blamed. His newly discovered family leads to him contacting the woman in question, Agnes, who now runs a foster home for damaged teenage girls. He is impressed by the way she seems to have her life under control; she talks of the hatred she once felt as an “all-consuming parasite. The girls are all that matter now.” When Harriet appeared, Frederick spoke of a door opening that he had thought close forever – he now feels as if:
“Every single door inside me was swinging back and forth in the wind, which seemed to be getting stronger all the time.”
At this point, the novel seems very much about one man’s redemption – and indeed it is. But that redemption is never certain or complete, Mankell is too subtle for that. Moments of community, where Frederick seems to be reconnecting with the world, like the summer solstice celebration arranged for Harriet, are balanced by breakdowns in empathy like Sima’s suicide and his clumsy attempts to seduce Agnes. It reminded me a little of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, where an emotionally closed off man seeks to reconnect with only limited success. The titles of the four sections of the novel tell their own story: Ice, in the beginning when he is isolated; The Forest, when he seems lost amid all the changes; The Sea, when he attempts to connect with those around him; and finally, Winter Solstice, a year on from when Harriet appeared, when he is offered hope in his relationships with both Louise and Agnes. There is no dramatic change by the end, but there is change:
“It was just as Harriet had written. We had come this far.
“No further than that. But this far.”