A Treacherous Paradise, by Henning Mankell (Harvill Secker, RRP $38):
Best known as author of the chilling Kurt Wallander crime novels, Henning Mankell has certainly opted for a change of pace with his latest novel.
A Treacherous Paradise is a complex and powerful historical novel set in early 20th Century Sweden and Mozambique. Based a true story (A Sullied Angel), it tells the story of Hanna Renstrom, who grew up in northern Sweden but at the tender age of 19 she decides to escape the poverty of rural Sweden by taking a job as a cook on a ship heading to Australia.
As is so often the case with life – both real life and the version found in novels – things don’t quite go according to plan: she falls in love with and marries the ship’s mate during the voyage but while they ship is docked on the East African coast he falls ill and dies. Hanna jumps ship at the port of Lourenco Marques and embarks on yet another fresh start.
After being married and widowed for a second time, Hanna ends up inheriting a successful brothel.
Hanna is isolated: as a woman in what was at the time very much a man’s world, and by her colour as she tries to befriend the young black prostitutes who work for her.
It is here that Hanna is exposed to a level of ingrained racism that impacts the whole town. The distrust between blacks and whites, and the shadow of colonialism, lead to tragedy and murder.
I found this quite a change from Henning Mankell’s usual offerings and at times felt it was almost depressingly grey: the gloomy existence of Hanna was almost too gloomy to read about. However, as the story went on I ended up engrossed.