Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Henning Mankell "Return of the Dancing Master" and "Kennedy's Brain"

Okay I am cheating a bit here because I am going to tackle these two novels at once. Actually I might even talk about that other Swedish giant of the moment (although the poor man is deceased and not around to enjoy his huge success) Stieg Larsson as well.

I read "Return of the Dancing Master" first and really loved it. There is a stillness and sparsity to Mankell's writing that really amps up the creepy factor. Like Larsson the Swedish landscape and character looms large in Mankell's novels.

Return of the Dancing Master is a meticulously constructed murder mystery. It is eerie and desolate and down right chilling. While Mankell's novels have not "swept the world" in the same way that the Larsson Millennium trilogy has, I think Return of the Dancing Master is at least as good if not better than the Millennium books. There is a very strong sense of place in The Return of the Dancing Master. While reading it you actually feel like you are in the cold, immense and isolated forests of northern Sweden. The turmoil of the young police officer Stefan Lindman, feels very real. He throws himself into solving the increasingly disturbing murder of a former colleague to avoid facing his own mortality. Stefan has recently been diagnosed with mouth cancer. I also like how Mankell takes his time and lets the story unfold slowly. He is masterful in slowly and believably increasing the tension through building up the details. I thoroughly enjoyed this book

The more recently published "Kennedy's Brain" by Henning Mankell is not entirely satisfying. The novel is basically about a mother, Louise, trying to unravel the circumstances surrounding her twenty eight year old son, Henrik's death. The death has been put down as a suicide but Louise is suspicious and so joins forces with her ex husband, Henrik's father, to uncover the truth.

The search for the truth takes her to a multitude of destinations including Australia and Africa. As a complete aside, I couldn't help but notice that both Henning Mankell and Steg Larsson send their characters to Australia when the characters need to escape unpleasant life experiences and want to start afresh. I guess as an Australian I should feel flattered, or maybe not. Getting back to the plot of Kennedy's Brain, Louise's search takes her to Mozambique where she steps into a world of greed and the exploitation of HIV victims.

There are too many unanswered questions in Kennedy's Brain for my liking. The strangest being the disappearance of Louise's husband mid way through the book. This is never referred to again. Don't get me wrong I don't need everything tidied up and can even deal with the fact that Louise does not discover the exact chain of events leading up to her son's death.

Maybe it doesn't work because the characterisations of Henrik, and Louise and her husband are strong; what has driven them throughout their lives and that sort of thing and then the momentum switches to some appalling scenes of of abuse and experimentation with HIV victims in Mozambique. The sensitive depictions of his protagonists sort of gets lost in what is to follow as the full horror of the situation in Mozambique starts to unfold.

Mankell creates a wonderful sense of place in all of the settings that Louise visits on her search. I found the depiction of the Mozambique scenes especially evocative and moving. Mankell's writing conjures up a vivid picture of poverty, colour, heat and suffering. I have since learned that Mr Mankell has strong connections with Africa and it resonates strongly in his writing.

As a whole the plot doesn't hang together well enough and frankly Louise is rather annoying. Hers seems to be a picture of someone who is falling apart or barely holding on maybe. I guess by the end of the book she has some resolve to take things to the next level, both in her quest to uncover the truth and in her need to take possession of her own destiny. But that is merely a guess, because the point, in relation to the outcome for the main characters, is far from clear. On the other hand Mankell's anger at the abuse and mistreatment of the poorest people in Mozambique is palpable and I suspect this message was the author's main purpose in writing the novel. More to inform than entertain. I felt short-changed.

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