This is not a crime fiction book by Henning Mankell, and not about Kurt Wallander. Italian Shoes is a novel – a book describing a voyage deep into the soul of an elderly man. Sixty-six-year-old Frederick Welin has been a surgeon. For the past 12 years he has lived alone in his little cottage on an isolated island outside Stockholm. His stay on the island is a self-imposed exile. He was guilty, and this is what he deserves; the punishment he has prescribed for himself. But why is he hiding? Will he ever be able to return from exile?
One day, in January, one cold, bleak mid-winter day, a lone figure is slowly coming towards him out there on the ice, an old lady on a walker. When she is close enough, he recognizes Harriet Hörnfeldt, the woman he had loved intensely in the summer of 1966 and then abandoned – 30 years ago. Finally she has tracked him down.
Now Harriet is dying of cancer. Ever since he left her, she has loved and hated him. The reason for her visit is that she wants Frederick to honor the beautiful promise he once made her – to take her to a pool deep in the forests of northern Sweden; to a place where he once, as a child, spent a wonderful day with his father.
This is the start of a long journey through the Swedish winter and, at the same time, deep into old, almost forgotten, perhaps even repressed memories of events far in the past and of love, intimacy and betrayal. The journey is strenuous and eventful – with accidents and problems, and with the past moving forward into the present. It provides him with an opportunity to take responsibility and face his past, to ponder who he really is, and forces him to recognize his own lack of consideration both for himself and for others.
Gradually Frederick realizes the extreme futility of his attempt to abandon himself and others. His questions about himself and his life get increasingly urgent: “Before I die,” Fredrik says, “I must know why I’ve lived.” But can he make up for what has been lost?
Italian Shoes is a wonderful novel, outstandingly translated by Laurie Thompson. Having read most of the books Henning Mankell has written, I consider this to be among his three best books, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It is tender and reminiscing, profoundly sad, and tells a rich story in a way that in many ways remind me of the writing of Norwegian author Per Petterson in his Out Stealing Horses. It is quietly told, yet rich in all manner of emotions. The story is one that will make you pause to reflect and consider. Italian Shoes is a deep, timeless, very impressive tale of redemption and renewal, about a man imprisoned by fear and pride.
Praise for Italian Shoes:
“a fine meditation on love and loss.” –Sunday Telegraph
“stark” — Sunday Times
“Mankell carefully maps the changing seasons in beautifully stark prose”