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BOOK REVIEW

Mankell explores underneath life's ice

By Ed Siegel
Globe Correspondent / June 9, 2009
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Kurt Wallander might be the most depressive standing detective in crime fiction, but he seems like Kenneth the page from "30 Rock" compared with the protagonists in Henning Mankell's non-genre fiction.

Meet Frederik Welin. He lives on his own private island where he cuts a hole in the ice and jumps in every day to feel alive. And, this being Scandinavia, such a ritual by the 66-year-old makes the daily dip by the L Street Brownies look like a dive into a heated indoor pool.

And did we mention his dog and cat? Who are both dying. Or the lover he ditched? Who's dying of cancer. Or his former patient? Whose good arm he mistakenly amputated. Or . . . Well, you get the picture. Life isn't a cabaret for Frederik Welin. If he were to die tomorrow no one would care except the schlub who delivers his mail and gets free medical advice for his various imaginary ailments.

But wait! Who's that woman inching her way across the ice with help from her walker? Is it the Godot he had long stopped waiting for? No, it's the aforementioned cancer-ravaged lover he had abandoned, who's about to whisk him away to . . . The Forest.

And if the plot seems like something out of a film by Mankell's father-in-law, the late Ingmar Bergman, the prose isn't any sunnier: "It's not easy when your best friend is someone you dislike." "The pain you caused me sent me to hell and back."

By now it's apparent that it's not hard to mock Mankell's non-ironic approach to the abyss. Without the anchor of Wallander, his great detective, Mankell can go off the deep end with only the slightest provocation.

But you know something? "Italian Shoes" is a good read. Yes, it's easy to pick it apart for its excesses, but Mankell earns those excesses - by the skin of his existential teeth, but he earns them.

When Harriet, his jilted ex, takes Frederik to The Forest you know that either revenge or redemption is going to be the outcome, particularly when she introduces him to the daughter he didn't know was percolating when he went walkabout.

She's hardly a bundle of joy herself. Louise lives in the middle of nowhere dressed in a pink dressing gown and high-heeled shoes and asks such questions of life as, "Why is nobody selling silence, in the same way that they sell the forests and the iron ore?"

So what's good about all this? Unlike the characters of Mankell's other non-Wallander works who plumb the depths of existence in such books as, well, "Depths," the characters of "Italian Shoes" seem to be seeking something as recognizable as it is elusive in their lives. If they can barely keep their heads above water that makes their occasional swimming successes look Olympian.

OK, I could have done without the angry amputee who develops her own bizarro bond with the doctor who did the "my bad" on her arm, but in a Mankell novel she's just one more strange survivor.

We probably shouldn't give away whether redemption wins out over revenge, so let's just say that the doctor's odyssey from chapter heading - "Ice," "The Forest" - to chapter heading -- "The Sea," "Winter Solstice" - leaves the reader in a better place, if not alongside all the characters.

There's one quite beautiful scene, a party that's one of the last wishes of the dying Harriet, that has a gather-ye-rosebuds charm able to transcend any trace of mawkishness. That, in itself, is no small accomplishment. Add to that Mankell's ability to transcend his own self-satirical instincts ("It's just as easy to lose your way inside yourself as it is to get lost in the woods or in a city") and "Italian Shoes" feels like a pretty good fit, at least once the leather starts to relax.

Ed Siegel, a freelance writer, can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

ITALIAN SHOES

By Henning Mankell, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson

New Press, 256 pp., $26.95

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