A Treacherous Paradise
“. . . a book that stays with you long after the final page has been turned.”
Mr. Mankell’s latest mystery is a leap away from his Wallander series of books that has enjoyed worldwide success, but it requires no leap of faith for anyone who has read his other books, such as Chronicler of the Winds.
Like all his work, A Treacherous Paradise gently probes humankind’s underbelly, raising more questions than it answers.
The mystery is established in the 21st century prologue, then proceeds to take the reader back to the turn of the previous century and on a journey as enthralling as that of the book’s protagonist, Hanna Renström.
When she is fifteen, Hanna’s stern mother, Elin, sends her away when famine sweeps the harsh Swedish countryside and the matriarch of this fatherless family realizes she cannot feed all of her children.
Hanna’s future is entrusted to Forsman, a businessman Elin scarcely knows but who passes through their remote homelands in his sledge close to Christmas time. Swathed in furs, the honorable man takes Hanna away and her journey begins: A journey that sees the naïve teenager grow in awareness as she leaves Forsman’s house to work as a cook on her patron’s ship en route for Australia. But that increasing awareness of a wonderful if cruel world, torments as much as it enlightens and just a month after becoming a wife, Hanna becomes a widow.
As her husband is buried at sea, “Hanna is possessed by a memory. It comes from nowhere.” She recalls that close to the end of his own life, her father whispered to her that she was “A mucky angel.”
This memory returns to Hanna as she jumps ship in East Africa, and it returns to her throughout the book. In need of care, she stays in what is supposed to be a hotel but soon is revealed as a brothel. It is in this place of clearly defined order between the black prostitutes and the white brothel-owner and his clients that Hanna comes face to face with the realities of this steamy time and place at the dawn of the 20th century.
The story takes bizarre twists as Hanna’s fortune changes. A widow for the second time she becomes the owner of the brothel and struggles to strike a shaky balance between her newfound wealth and success and the black people upon whose backs it is built.
The protagonist assuages her conscience with money, all the while treating a companion chimpanzee with more humanity than an overweight black prostitute. Yet Hanna is a haunting character who engages the reader as she struggles to understand who she is and her own place in the world.
A Treacherous Paradise is about abandonment and belonging; deceit and sincerity. It challenges the reader to consider his or her reaction when confronted by racism and modern day slavery while never before having seen a black man.
The book urges the reader to step back into Hanna’s world and into Hanna’s shoes and ask What would I have done in a world “that seemed to be comprised of nothing but hypocrisy and a repulsive contempt for the people whose home this country actually was.”
Mr. Mankell has cleverly woven this story around the single true historical fact that, at the end of the 19th century, a Swedish woman was the owner of one of the biggest brothels in the Mozambique town of Maputo. At times the temptation to explore metaphors can be distracting.
But this is a book that stays with you long after the final page has been turned. A picture of the external contrasts and internal conflicts of turn of the century Africa and the footprints of the people who passed through are sensitively painted.
Its sense of place is adeptly accomplished. Mr. Mankell’s writing is beautifully understated and, as already illustrated by his Kurt Wallander series of books, is sure to lend itself to a visual interpretation.