Journey to renewal

2009-07-29 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Italian Shoes

Henning Mankell (translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson)

Harvill Secker

ONCE a successful surgeon, Frederick Welin has spent 12 years in self-imposed exile on an island in the Swedish archipelago, his penance for a tragic mishap on the operating ­table.

One morning in the depths of ­winter he sees a hunched figure struggling towards him across the ice. His unexpected visitor is Harriet, the only woman he has ever loved: he’d abandoned her decades before to go and study in the United States.

Now terminally ill, she’s sought him out in the hope that he’ll honour the promise he’d made in their youth, to take her to a small lake in northern Sweden. Welin does so, driving her to the pool hidden deep in a forest.

But if Harriet’s visit and request have taken him unawares, there’s a much bigger surprise awaiting Welin on their journey, a surprise that has the potential to unfreeze his numb heart and to offer him a future that includes warmth, kindliness, affection — everything he’d believed lost.

In this novel the wonderfully versatile Mankell, best known to South ­African readers for his Kurt Wallander detection novels, but renowned ­also for brilliant non-series novels, examines human frailty and the ­processes of ageing and death with compassion and humanity.

At first Welin seems to be as bleak and frozen as his environment, and it’s entirely in character that he should allow ants to build an enormous nest in his house, should keep a dully monosyllabic log of his featureless days, and should routinely break a hole in the ice for his bath.

It becomes clear after a while, though, that he’s a man of great gifts and sensibilities, and that his isolation was, for him, the only way of dealing with agonising guilt — guilt about the failure of his relationships, as well as the surgical mishap.

Beautifully written and fluidly translated by Laurie Thompson, the book is melancholy — for ageing, loss and a life of enforced solitude are ­melancholy things — but never ­depressing. The reader is caught up in Welin’s life and rejoices with him as he contemplates a belated ­emotional spring, and even, perhaps, the enfolding warmth and light of a northern summer.

And the handcrafted Italian shoes of the title? You’ll need to read the book to appreciate them, but through them Mankell, delicately, humorously, shows us how devoted craftsmanship — with leather as with music or words or pigment — may transcend the mundane and so inspire, illuminate and reopen closed minds and hearts.

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