News of the refugee crisis comes at us in fits and starts, but, untouched by it ourselves, we in the U.S. remain mostly on the sidelines. The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell, author of the well-known Kurt Wallander mysteries, was a wake-up call for me. I thought I knew Mankell, but this book showed me I did not. A passionate advocate for the plight of immigrants in Europe, he writes about their experience in a way that wrenches the heart. It recounts the suffering of three immigrants to Sweden, one from Nigeria, one from Russia, one from Iran; two illegal, one legal, though she, the Iranian, lives in terror of her own family.
The frame Mankell constructs for their harrowing stories sets them off to perfection. The narrator, Jesper Humlin, a poet whose abstruse verses hardly anyone can understand, worries constantly about his media image, his popularity, the number of copies his books have sold, and getting attention from the press. He feels threatened professionally by everyone he meets, especially an equally self-centered rival, his mirror image, with whom he constantly competes. His life is a shambles. Well into middle-age, he can’t make up his mind whether or not to stay with his angry, aggressive girlfriend to whom he rarely tells the truth. He lets himself be a punching bag for his wildly eccentric domineering mother. He becomes involved in a scheme to write a crime novel he has no intention of writing, and he constantly calls his stockbroker for advice because he’d heavily invested in a security (on the broker’s advice) whose price has plummeted and continues to go down.
Into this narcissistic mess steps the mysterious Tea-bag, a beautiful Nigerian refugee who gave this name to herself when she saw a tea-bag on a saucer next to a cup of tea recently swallowed by an immigration official who had asked her name. The refugees never give their true names, or their true countries of origin, since they’re afraid that their actual identities will count against them in the complicated, arbitrary, unending game of being chosen for admission to one European country or another. Under the onslaught of what he learns about Tea-bag’s horrific journey to Sweden, slowly, spasmodically, Jesper Humlin’s self-preoccupation starts to crack. The story of “Tanya,” a Russian refugee forced into prostitution by a group of traffickers breaks his defenses down further. And when Leyla, the Iranian girl terrified of her father and brothers, tells what happened to her sister, he is completely won over and tries, in a bumbling, ineffectual way, to offer the girls concrete, practical help.
Mankell’s satirical portrait of the narrator and the literary life he leads is laugh-out-loud funny—not what we expect from the creator of the dour detective from Ystad. His first-person accounts of what happened to the three girls will shake you down to your toes. Gone is the slow, clotted, careful registration of facts that characterized his style in the Wallander series. In its place, prose that rips your heart out. Mankell composed The Shadow Girls just after he had written all of the Wallander novels but one. Apparently he’d been an activist on behalf of immigrants—especially Palestinians—for some time. But, reading this novel, I felt it was as if he’d had a conversion experience that opened up something inside him. All the force of his personality and his talents are in this book, as if let loose for the first time. He tells us in a brief Afterword that although The Shadow Girls is a novel, the stories of the girls are true. That, we realize, is where the energy comes from. The skill comes from years of novel-writing. The combination carries a tremendous punch.
When I finished the book, I asked myself: What can I do? This book was written before Afghanistan, before Iraq, before Syria. If things were this bad back in 2000 when the novel was written, what must they be like today? The first thing to do, perhaps, is to look around and become aware of the refugees in our midst. Who are they? How are they doing? What have they been through? And to let the answers to those questions lead to the next step.~