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The Shadow Girls    by Henning Mankell order for
Shadow Girls
by Henning Mankell
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, Softcover
* *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

This is sort of a story-within-a-story. A disillusioned poet is told by his publisher to write a crime novel. This is beneath his dignity, but a chance encounter at a poetry reading sets him off on another adventure, which creates the more interesting inside story.

Three immigrants to Sweden, who have come to what they think is the Promised Land, discover that they have no face in this country. Further, because they are illegal, they must continually run and hide to prevent discovery. Their stories are told in abrupt episodic fashion, but they are riveting.

Author Mankell is known for his Kurt Wallander mysteries, among others. Here, in a way that is slightly comic, slightly ironic and a bit absurd, he manages to convey the desperation of the hunted, and their wish to have someone listen so they can be heard. Mankell's Afterword shows he has much sympathy for them and their stories.

2nd Review by Rheta Van Winkle:

Maybe the humor doesn't come through in translation from the Swedish. I couldn't find anything funny or enjoyable about The Shadow Girls. None of the characters were likeable, from the main character Jesper Humlin to his publisher Olof Lundin, who insists that poet Humlin write a crime thriller, to his ninety-year-old mother, who nags him constantly, to his girlfriend, who gives him an ultimatum that she wants to have a child or she will leave him. The three girls who are illegal immigrants are such tragic figures that they overwhelm Humlin's shallow life with the reality of their suffering. Nothing that has happened to him can compare with the horrors that they experienced and from which they fled.

Humlin seems to be a totally spineless man, but when he does attempt to act, he can't manage to accomplish anything. And perhaps this is the point of the novel, that the question of illegal immigration is so vast and unsolvable that no one can do much to help. The one obvious fact that comes out of this book is that there are millions of frightened people, abused in their own countries, who are attempting to escape to a better life, and borders don't stop them. They are driven underground, where they are forced to commit such crimes against civilization and humanity as murder and theft in order to survive.

Humlin gradually learns the stories of three young women: Tea-Bag from Nigeria, Tanya from Russia, and Leyla from Iran. He half-heartedly reconnects with an old friend, Pelle Törnblom, while in Stensgaͦrden where he is scheduled to do a reading of his poetry at a library. During the reading and later when he goes to visit Törnblom at the boxing club that he runs, Humlin discovers that Stensgaͦrden has so many immigrants that it hardly resembles the Sweden that he has lived in all his life. He first sees Tea-Bag at the reading and later meets her again, along with Tanya and Leyla, at the boxing club after Törnblum invites him to come and teach these girls how to write their stories.

The stories of the girls come out intermittently, interspersed with the tale of Humlin's own sad life, and the contrast is jarring. The pointlessness of everyone's existence is so depressing that one wonders why the suicide rate isn't higher in Sweden. Two of the girls seem to be doomed to a life of hiding, drug abuse, and stealing in an effort to simply feed themselves, find shelter, and survive. We don't even learn enough about the one who supposedly escapes this life to know whether she will succeed. Of course, this is fiction, but I would have enjoyed the book much more if there had been any hope for a happier life for any of the girls.

Humlin seems to change, finally, but we're left wondering how his new attitude toward life will actually affect him. The author's rather poetic ending doesn't tell us much - Humlin 'asked himself how many of the people he saw did not really exist, how many were living on borrowed time with borrowed identities?'

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