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A Trecherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

This week Sarah Cassidy has written a review in my place. Sarah is a university student who works at Parry Sound Books in the summer and has proved to be a young woman of exceptional ability and a very valuable member of our staff. She is also a great reader and I am very pleased to give her the opportunity to review some books for us this summer! Charlotte Mystery fans will know the name Henning Mankell. His Kurt Wallander series is a favourite at Parry Sound Books and worldwide. As a Wallander fan, I expected to be disappointed by Henning Mankell’s new novel, A Treacherous Paradise. I find that the more attached I am to one of an author’s works, the less I am able to become enveloped in a world that just isn’t the same. Despite my expectations, I loved A Treacherous Paradise. It isn’t Wallander, but it is just as well written and as addictive.

Hanna Renstrom’s saga begins at age eighteen. Her mother arranges that she be removed from the home, as her family might have a better chance at surviving the winter with one fewer member. Hanna is briefly employed in Sweden before she is hired as a cook on a ship bound for Australia. She is quickly married and just as quickly widowed. Her despair drives her to jump ship at the African port of Lorenço Marques. The “hotel” where Hanna takes refuge is in actuality a brothel. When she suddenly falls ill, Hanna unwittingly makes the brothel O Paraiso her home. The cast of characters that inhabit the brothel are a testament to Mankell’s knack for creating outlandish characters who are incredibly real. Not the least of which is Carlos, O Paraiso’s waiter who happens to be a chimpanzee in a white tuxedo. Like all of the secondary characters in this novel, his fate becomes a matter of importance to the reader.

The tension at the heart of the novel reveals itself as Hanna settles into life in Lorenço Marques. The city is a cesspool of racism, fear, and dishonesty. The whites are contemptuous and often brutal towards the blacks. They regard the blacks as less than human. The blacks find the whites incomprehensible; people who die young hunting down fortunes when what they really chase after is lost time. Hanna yearns to see past the “white mist” that prevents her from truly understanding black culture. She is a solemn character, not perfect but aware of her hypocrisies. While the whites attribute dishonesty and fear to the blacks, she exclusively notes these traits in her white compatriots.

Hanna’s life reaches a cataclysm when she witnesses a black woman murder her white husband. Hanna takes up the crusade of freeing Isabel from prison. She is prepared to sacrifice absolutely everything to save Isabel, but everything collapses when an ill-intending employee of the brothel breaks into her home.

Hanna’s name changes at each discretely unique chapter in her life – a reflection of the outward identities we emphasize and the internal identities that constrain our perceptions. The novel traces the lines that divide us – some irrevocably and others that can be traversed if we can see past our own biases. The gift this novel brings is complete attachment to the story and its characters. I gasped aloud at each death, often caught by surprise and almost always lamenting the lost character. Mankell teases you with hope but often delivering devastation, leaving you unsure as to how things will turn out.

Although I would recommend it to anyone at any time, A Treacherous Paradise is the perfect book for a rainy day at the cottage (or during a heat wave when reading is the only endurable activity, as were the conditions when I read it). Sarah Cassidy

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