A brilliant, dark study

2010-11-24 00:00



Henning Mankell

Harvill Secker

HAVING been introduced to the Swedish crime genre via Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, I was excited to be given this book, and was not to be disappointed. Translated from Swedish, the novel tells the story of a San boy plucked from the vast sands and heat of the desert in 1875 by young Swedish entomologist Hans Bengler. Bengler had travelled by sea to Cape Town and on to the Kalahari in the hope of finding a new insect to name after himself. He also finds the newly orphaned Daniel and feels compelled to save and civilise him.

Bengler comes back to Sweden, with a hitherto unknown beetle and the unwilling orphaned boy, but his quest to save the boy soon goes awry. The only black person most Swedes then had ever seen, Daniel is stranded in a land of ice and snow, and total isolation. His yearning for his dead parents, his home in the desert and all things familiar goes unacknowledged and he is totally alienated.

The novel is a brilliant study of othering, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and ultimately betrayal, and the reader experiences the stark loneliness Daniel feels. Then he finds a friend, an odd girl called Sanna who is also a loner, and an understanding develops between them.

The style is unnerving at first, even taking into account that it has the sometimes jarring effect that a translation has. The storyline is interspersed with the unexpected, the bizarre and the sinister. It often reads like the script of a bad dream where cruel forces invade suddenly without warning.

And it is not predictable at all, despite the beginning starting with the end. The writing style is sparse, echoing the desolation of Daniel. Once I overcame my mild dread of the plot, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. Thought provoking, inventive and understated, it’s a good, if dark and unsettling read.

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