30 May 2009

Italian Shoes

by Henning Mankell

Random House. Adult Other. Paperback rrp $34.95

Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Frederik Welan, a former surgeon, is an emotional cripple and regretful of many things in his past. At sixty-six, he lives alone on a frozen island which he inherited from his grandparents, with a dog and a cat that are older in body than he is. For the last twelve years he has hibernated there after a mix-up at the hospital and its tragic outcome.

On a wintry night when the ‘ice was singing… in the darkness’, his past comes to claim him. Harriet, his life’s love whom he abandoned forty years ago arrives, dying of cancer and expecting him to fulfil a promise made to her so long ago. She also holds a long kept secret which rocks Frederik’s world and sets him on a journey from emotional death to renewed life.

Harriet’s return resurrects Frederik. He has wrongs that he must right, and goes in search of Agnes, the woman that he caused such anguish to during the botched surgery. Their meeting reignites his interest in life even further as he sees her selfless dedication to the traumatised orphan girls in her care. But she still carries deep scars.

There are secondary stories floating in the background that tie in with the activity in the forefront. There is the story of the oldest cave paintings found in France, the history of handmade shoes that comes through the life of the elderly shoemaker, and Caravaggio’s dark and undisciplined life and his art.

The icy landscape and frozen surroundings are perfect symbols of Frederik’s isolation and dead emotions. The decay that surrounds him from the dying Harriet, to his aged dog and cat, and from the fragile shoemaker to his grandfather’s rotted boat that he refuses to repair, are all representations of everything lost and futile in Frederik’s existence. This picture of death is juxtaposed against the pulsing renewed life presented in the breathtaking descriptions of the night skies, rivers and natural surroundings.

The characters carry the story; bold, outstanding, complex, compelling constructions equal to its themes of human frailty, ageing and dying, and the poetic prose that hums like music.


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