Frederick Welin was once a surgeon until an act of medical negligence brought him into disrepute. It was not so much what happened as the fact that he attempted to avoid the responsibility which brought the disgrace and he retreated to live on a skerry in the Stockholm archipelago, cut off from all but a very few people. Twelve years into his self-imposed exile, Welin, now in his mid sixties, wakes one morning to see an old woman with a Zimmer frame struggling across the frozen sea to his cottage. It was Harriet, a woman whom he had loved and then abandoned without warning some forty years before.
You'll struggle to warm to Welin, who's moved through life without accumulating much in the way of companions and his most meaningful relationships are with the postman and the coastguard. He's a snooper and it's whilst he's going through Harriet's handbag that he discovers she's in the later phases of a terminal illness. She's sought him out because she wants to hold him to a promise he once made to take her to a remote lake in northern Sweden. It's an eventful journey which forces Welin to think about the way his life has gone – but ill as she is, Harriet has a shock in store for him.
As do most people outside Sweden, I came to Mankell via his Wallander police procedurals and it was only when I was deprived of those that I moved on to Depths and was won over by the anti-hero, Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, and Mankell's ability to evoke the fog- and ice-bound islands of the archipelago. I was slightly disappointed by Kennedy's Brain which was written from burning anger and lacked the clinical precision of Depths, but it's with Italian Shoes that I feel Mankell has come into his own.
We have another anti-hero in Welin and whilst the book has the familiar themes of estrangement and isolation, the overt violence of Depths has gone, to be replaced by redemption and a glimmer of hope. It's another journey into the heart of a man and an examination of aging and death – those which come suddenly and without warning and those which are long-heralded and perhaps greeted with relief. The book lacks a towering female character such as Sara Fredrika in Depths, but Harriet and the other women who come into Welin's life are vital – despite the fact that one is terminally ill – and contribute greatly to the uplifting feeling that the book gave me. I finished the book with a feeling of hope that there was a better future ahead – which is rather unusual With Mankell's books.
Italian Shoes may well lack the technical brilliance of Depths but for me it's the best of Mankell's work. Difficult themes – aging and death – are dealt with sensitively and back lit by the bleak settings of the Stockholm archipelago and northern Sweden. The writing is elegant and Laurie Thompson's translation as brilliant as ever. Add to this a thought-provoking and intriguing story and it really is difficult to ask for more.
review by Sue Magee of The Bookbag