Swedish author Henning Mankell is probably best known in the United States for his crime novels featuring the somewhat shopworn detective Kurt Wallander. In many ways, the Wallander series has led the way for a recent influx of translations of Scandinavian crime fiction and thrillers. One of the hallmarks of these books is the far-reaching social commentary that accompanies their portrayals of criminal investigations, as well as their focus on the everyday lives of characters and not just the derring-do required to defeat the criminals. This broader social context, often quite political and concerned with economic inequality and unemployment, makes Swedish crime fiction closer to mainstream fiction than to average novels in the mystery genre. This tendency in Swedish fiction helps explain Mankell’s easy transition from his crime series to his African novels and to the stand-alone work Italian Shoes.
In Italian Shoes, Fredrik Welin is a sixty-six-year-old former surgeon who removed himself years ago to his grandparents’ summerhouse, where he lives with an aging cat and dog. His home is located on a remote island inhabited by only a few hardy souls who endure being frozen in during the long winter and have only sporadic contact with the outside world even in summer. The postal carrier, Jansson, visits Welin on occasion, appearing more often for advice on his various ailments than to deliver any mail. Every morning, Welin walks down to the jetty, chops a hole in the ice with an ax, and jumps into the water. The ritual is his way of convincing himself that he is not totally numb to feeling and to life.
Welin’s decision to exile himself resulted in large part from a botched operation in which, relying on his staff, he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman who had been a hopeful swimming champion. It is a cruel irony that the original diagnosis proved wrong, so she did not need an operation at all. In disgrace, Welin escaped to his island, hoping to insulate himself from his past. The past will not leave him alone, however, and one day, as he is preparing to go down for his dip in the water, he notices a silhouette, a black figure standing out on the ice. Through his binoculars, Welin sees a woman leaning on a walker, a handbag over her arm, wrapped against the cold. At first, he cannot identify her, but as he looks closer he recognizes her as Harriet Hörnfeldt, his lover of forty years ago.
With Harriet comes Welin’s past, the past he has worked so diligently to suppress. She tells him that she has come after all these years to make him honor a promise he made to her when they were still a couple. Once, Welin’s father had taken him to an isolated forest pool that left a magical impression on him, and he promised Harriet that he would take her there one day. When he received an invitation to study in the United States, however, he left without a word, rather summarily dumping her. The rejection, she will later confess to him, left her devastated. Welin’s excuses for not making the trip to the poolthat his car is too unreliable, that he cannot remember the way, and so onfall deaf ears. Harriet insists that he fulfill his earlier promise.
From the beginning, the trip appears fraught with disaster. Travel to the mainland, where Welin stores his antiquated car, goes smoothly, and the car seems adequate enough for the trip. However, the travelers get a flat tire, become stuck in a snow bank, and, while staying overnight at a bed and breakfast, discover that their landlady has died. In spite of these setbacks, eventually they reach the forest pool, and Welin experiences relief at finally keeping a promise. He offers to return Harriet to her home before returning to his island. She, however, has one more stop to make and once again insists that he take her there.
This little side trip proves even more revelatory than Harriet’s sudden appearance. Welin and Harriet travel to a remote, forested area of Sweden to meet a young woman who lives ina trailer. Harriet calmly informs Welin that the young woman is his daughter....
(The entire section is 1673 words.)