The Shadow Girls

  • Henning Mankell, translated by Ebba Segerberg
  • New Press
  • 336 pp.

Caught up in personal and career concerns, the protagonist in this novel about a novelist learns to look beyond himself and see the true suffering of others.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

Henning Mankell’s The Shadow Girls is a moving, perplexing, and nightmarishly humorous novel. First published in Sweden in 2001, it is now available to English readers. The protagonist, Jesper Humlin, is a well-regarded Swedish poet whose life has become routine. His girlfriend strongly articulates her need for marriage and children, a desire he does not share. His unappreciative mother, who always belittles his achievements and views, provides another source of tension in his life. To subdue such discomforts, Humlin has numbed his sensitivity, and with it his spirit.

Moreover, he is having trouble making decisions, or even facing the fact that decisions need to be made. Humlin is at the mercy of those prepared to make decisions for him. These include his publisher, who urges him to take up crime fiction, and tells Humlin that he has no choice. Humlin, outraged, refuses. Likewise, his stockbroker, blandly reviewing the collapse of the poet’s portfolio, offers him no satisfactory advice except not to worry. Someday his stocks will rebound.

The poet is drawn in a new direction by his unexpected engagement with three young women, struggling immigrants with different backgrounds but the shared situation of living on society’s margins. Tea-Bag fled from a sorry existence in Nigeria to a refugee camp in Spain and then fled again to Sweden. Tanya, from Russia, was deceived by tales of improving her desperate situation and fell into a nightmare life as a prisoner in the human trafficking underworld.  Having escaped, she, too, is now an illegal living by her wits in Sweden. Leyla immigrated with her family from Iran. However, she remains oppressed by her father’s cruel manner of controlling her life.

All three live in the “depressingly generic city suburb” of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. Many of the novel’s darker scenes are set there, and in particular at a boxing club run by Humlin’s old friend, Törnblum, who insists that Humlin teach these young women how to write about their lives. Unsure about this undertaking, the poet is affronted, as with his publisher and broker, by how his friend is forcing the direction of Humlin’s life. But he goes forward anyway, because he is drawn to their desperation and senses that finding out about their lives may help him reclaim his own.

Should he help them escape from the shadow world in which they live? Do they want his help? Can he draw their stories out of them? Will anyone care if he succeeds? After beginning a series of informal workshops, Humlin faces new frustrations: the girls’ distrust, their faulty command of Swedish, and their continuing need for the protection of the shadows. Fear and distrust rule their lives. Slowly, usually in two or three bursts of nervous speech, their stories emerge. Intermittently, Humlin toys with the idea of using their stories as his raw material and writing a book about them, in place of the crime novel his publisher expects.

Having set the framework for the narrations of Tea-Bag, Tanya, and Leyla, Henning Mankell works the astounding magic of concocting a voice for each. In italicized passages, he brings us the distinctive but overlapping voices of three perceptive young women who, once their harrowing, poetic floods of pain are released, can never again be ignored. Humlin’s commitment to them grows, though he becomes aware of his limitations as the vehicle of their eventual liberation from the shadows. They have, for the time being, replaced the unborn children that his girlfriend wishes him to sire and, surprisingly, they have shown the respect to Humlin’s mother that he is unable to offer her convincingly.

While reading The Shadow Girls, readers can imagine Mankell feasting on the irony of his international success as the author of the Kurt Wallander crime novels, among others. Is he making fun of himself? Did he have, at one time, a smug disdain for genre fiction? Did he, like his character Jesper Humlin, think of his writing career as going in other directions only to end up succumbing to the commercial lure of crime fiction? Or is Humlin’s attitude, his slowly weakening determination not to compromise his art, a broader laugh by Mankell over the unending fuss about genre fiction versus “literary” fiction? Whatever the case, there is something delightfully playful about how Mankell presents poet Humlin’s outrage over being literally commanded to write crime fiction.

There are other sources of humor in this novel, oddly at home in a work that otherwise cries out to us to acknowledge, feel for, and attend to the people living in the shadows everywhere. One instance has to do with Humlin’s mother’s twilight career selling phone sex to other senior citizens. While Humlin is whining about his problems and losing his grip on life, his mother is taking control of hers. Tragicomically, her new career brings intensity as well as some income. Unlike her son who resists stooping to crime fiction, she feels no shame regarding her own profession.

To feel marginalized is part of the contemporary human condition, suggests Mankell. But what about those who truly do live on the margins and in the shadows, afraid for their faces to be shown or known? Who are these suffering people from nowhere whom no one wants to acknowledge? Can we bring ourselves to care?

Henning Mankell insists that we must.


Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in a wide variety of regional and national publications.

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