Monday, November 14, 2016

One Woman's Treacherous Paradise

The late Swedish author Henning Mankell, best known for his Wallander mysteries, was also known for other stand alone novels that seemed to be on the edge of mystery yet be so much more. A Treacherous Paradise tells the story of Hannah, a young Swedish woman in the early 1900s who leaves her small town on a ship in search of adventure in the faraway land of Australia. Although she discovers adventure, she finds it not in Australia but rather in Portuguese East Africa. There, after scrambling to land still reeling from the grief of losing her husband, mate Lundmark, she discovers a foreign world inhabited by a successful bordello, liars, murder, harsh racism, and a chimp who comes to be a friend.

This book reads like a nightmare softened by a dream, if that makes any sense. It took me a while to read several of the brutal scenes in the book, not because they were horrific to read but rather that Mankell wrote them so eloquently. His writing softened the blow of many of the injustices in the book and I found myself turning the pages even faster. Hannah witnesses much injustice against the blacks through the whites and wishes to rise above that, yet still falls into the trap of holding anger and frustration against them. However, she becomes more of a player in the "game" when she inherits the bordello of African women as owned by her late second husband, and even becomes the main defender of an African woman who is imprisoned for murdering her Portuguese husband. Everyone is a liar in the small town and everyone is a hypocrite, so long as whatever they do serves their needs for the time. The same white men who lash out at the blacks in town are the same ones who frequent the bordello. When the rumour of the rare appearance of an iceberg floats through town, everyone gathers together on the port to witness such a miracle without thought of race. However, when the rumour appears to be false, the fear and anger return just as quickly.

As much as I felt myself wanting to get angry at the events in the book, it stunned and pleased me to know that Mankell was involved in many charities in Africa and saw beyond colour. At the very end, Mankell discusses his "research" and advised that Hannah was based on a real Swedish woman who lived in Africa and owned a bordello - there's not too much information about her yet Mankell's book was a well justified example of what could have been.


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