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by Henning Mankell and Laurie Thompson, translator
New Press, April 2009
247 pages
ISBN: 1595584366

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Henning Mankell is a poet of disaffection. His characters can be introspective, gloomy, and dour, and the narrator of ITALIAN SHOES is no exception.

Fredrik Welin lives alone on a speck of an island off the coast of Sweden with an aging dog and cat and bad memories of a medical procedure gone wrong. There is an anthill growing in one of the bedrooms, threatening to take over the room, and his only company is a hypochondriacal postman who stops by in a boat with mail and imaginary ailments. Welin uses an ax every morning to chop a hole in the ice so that he can submerge himself in frigid water and feel that he is alive. But then one day a figure shows up on the ice, an old and frail woman with a walker - Harriet, a lover he abandoned years ago without ever looking back. She's dying of cancer and wants him to fulfill a promise to take her to a forest pool from his childhood in the north. He agrees to do it, reluctantly, and along their journey he begins to face up to other promises he made but never kept.

Though at first the gloomy introspection of the narrator seems almost comically extreme, but there's something prickly, stubborn, and endearing about him. As Harriet coaxes him out of his isolation and forces him to face up to the life he abandoned the young woman whose arm he amputated by mistake, the daughter he didn't know he had he begins to connect. One of his encounters is with a craftsman from Italy who has settled in northern Sweden to make the beautiful shoes, lovingly crafted by hand.

Though not a mystery, and a fairly slight book at that, ITALIAN SHOES has some of the social commentary and a lot of the psychological insight of the Kurt Wallander series; the only difference is that instead of murders, the story revolves around a missing person who is gradually reconnecting to himself and his past.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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