Henning Mankell – but not Wallander

Anyone who loves Scandi-noir as much as I do, will have read or watched on television the Wallander novels of Henning Mankell.

Italian Shoes and his very last novel, After the Fire are classic Mankell, taut dramas involving few people but extraordinary crimes. I have linked these two novels in one post because although they stand alone, they also involve one character, a surgeon Frederick Welin.

In both novels, we find Frederick hiding in his isolated house in the Swedish archipelago, alone on his island. In Italian Shoes, he has recently been involved in a terrible surgical miscalculation and has left his practice and the ensuing scandal and retired to his island when he is surprised in the middle of winter to see a figure struggling across the ice.

This is his past catching up with him, Harriet, a woman he once loved and abandoned has tracked him down to extract from him a promise made many years before and bringing him news that will surprise him.

To avoid plot spoilers I have to stop there, but believe me, it is worth finding out what happens next.

Moving on, we next meet Frederick still in his isolation, now aged seventy. Right at the start of the novel, he wakes to find his house burning down around him. He struggles out alive, in his pyjamas and boots, but in his haste he has picked up two left footed boots. Everything else he has ever owned is burnt to cinders.

Neighbours arrive to help, but there are fewer of them anyway as it is winter and the summer visitors have all gone. The retired postman, Ture Jansson, lends him a right-footed boot, but oddly not a pair and is helpful and concerned.

These are classic Mankell details, it is on these little things that one is hooked as surely as a fish on a line.

The police and fire inspectors follow, this is clearly arson and Frederick seems the most likely candidate, who else? Welin summons his daughter, someone whose existence he has only known about since she was twenty; another surprise. Their relationship is tense and often fractious but he knows deep down he still feels responsible for her, and sometimes even love.

There is an accumulating sense of dread and menace in this novel and once again I will not go further, for fear of giving away too much.

They make a brilliant pair of novels, but equally can be read one without the other. Both are worth the time, and the pages will flash by; these are the sorts of novels that make you miss your station (Underground or Overground), you will be so absorbed.



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Reading Australia 2

If you read my posts at all regularly, you will know that I have an unbridled passion for Australia: its land – which I consider God’s Own Country; its history – which makes me want to weep; and its culture – in which I include novels by English and Australian authors as well as everything else: film, painting and all things man-made.

My great hero in the writing world is Thomas Keneally. His output is prodigious and unfailingly interesting, gripping even, and apart from once straying into foreign fields, seems always to have a tenuous link to his own country.

KeneallyCrimes of the Fathers, his latest novel, is no exception. The fathers in question are priests and the crimes are all too awful and apparent. Being of Irish-Catholic extraction himself, Thomas Keneally knows at first hand about the rituals and confessionals of the Catholic faith,

In this novel, he is both channelling the good priests and chastising the bad ones. He obviously knows whereof he writes, which is not to say at all or even to suggest that he was himself a victim of child abuse, but who nowadays can honestly say that they know nothing about it. He was himself training for the priesthood but recognised, in time, that it was not the place for him.

We are all aware now that abuse exists throughout society, in almost every conceivable walk of life where children and young people are vulnerable to approaches of an abusive nature by a responsible adult behaving irresponsibly.

The protagonist in this novel, Father Docherty, has returned from Canada to his home turf, Sydney, to give a lecture in an archdiocese from which he was expelled some years earlier. His topic is child abuse: its foundations and the Church’s response, which to say the least, has been inadequate.

In this searing, insightful account as exemplified by the narrative, Thomas Keneally exposes a wearisome conundrum. As an ex-seminarian, he knows at first hand how the training and practices of the Catholic priesthood – celibacy and the confessional – can lead inexorably to corruption and abuse in the hands of a few emotionally stunted men; a situation that leads them into sexually abusing young men and women, exposure following them in secret, but not public censure; the Church hierarchy moving them on, often to repeat their offences; shielded by a system whose fear of scandal, and worse, whose fear of being undermined allowed the top people, all of them men, to cover up a practice that should have been rooted out and exposed and dealt with long ago.

Only the threat of national media exposure has changed everything, and this novel shows both the damage and the insidious cancer, to both victim and the Church that this avoidance of acknowledgement has caused.

RhoadesA second Australian novel The Woolgrower’s Companion is a book of a different order of narrative. The chapter headings all start with a quotation from the The Woolgrower’s Companion 1906, this is a double bluff, no such book or pamphlet exists. But it is a deceit which adumbrates the many different deceits inherent in this story. Joy Rhoades‘ novel is a heartbreaker.

I mentioned in a previous post the treatment of the Aboriginal People, I forgot to mention the equally appalling treatment of half-caste children, these were unfathomably always taken from their mothers and brought up, trained and sent out into service – generally into the service of white farmers, the very colonials who had often abused their kind.  Orphans were also treated this way and always sent to places far from their origins so that they could not go walkabout and find their own people.

Set in 1945 Longhope, New South Wales, the family in this narrative, the Stimsons, were on the surface wealthy landowners. The book opens with Ralph and his married daughter Kate Dowd, waiting at the local station for the arrival of Italian prisoners of war who were detailed to help on the farms in the absence of the young men still fighting.

Kate Dowd and her father live on a large sheep farm in New South Wales, a farm that Ralph had extended from a Soldiers’ Settlement after the First World War. This was a scheme parcelling out of plots of land for returning servicemen; some thrived and some failed and in Stimson’s case he was a thriver, and had bought up his neighbour’s plots as they went under, not without some chicanery on his side.

As well as the POWs, they have picked up a young boy, Harry, the nephew of their overseer, Grimes.

There are, on the farm, Grimes and another hand, Ed (who is possibly of Aboriginal descent) and two Aboriginal People and the two POW’s. Ralph Stimson the owner, his daughter Kate and an Aboriginal girl, Daisy, a half-caste from the local Domestic Training Home live in the house.

The whole area though is suffering from extreme drought, so all farming is on the knife edge of disaster, Amiens (the name given to this farm) has a dammed reservoir (an advantage not unconnected with the failure of his neighbour’s enterprises), but the water level is getting dangerously low.

This combination of adverse weather conditions and a small team make for intense relationships, each person relying on another to make things work. Ralph, however, has been slipping into a state of absent-mindedness and erratic bursts of fury, brought on partly by the death of his wife and partly as a result of his experiences in the First World War. So Grimes, and eventually Kate, are having to manage the farm, knowing all the time that soon the Second World War will end, their men will return and the Italians will go.

As I indicated earlier, this is a novel full of deceptions and one by one, they reveal themselves, with devastating consequences.

Taut, evocative writing – suspenseful and poignant – this is a story of universal appeal.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 12

What a glorious finale to my festival! Going back to who I wasIn this extraordinary film, we follow in the footsteps of a young Buddhist monk, Padma Angdu a reincarnated Rinpoche. Once the little boy monk is around six or seven his disciples are expected to come to find him and to take him back to their monastery.

In the case of Padma Angdu though, this is unlikely to be possible, for he is the latest incarnation of a teacher from Kham in Tibet and he has been born in Ladakh, India. For a while he is allowed to stay, but eventually the monastery reject him and he goes to live with the village healer, Urgyan, also a monk, who has been chosen as his guide.

The socio-political situation in Tibet makes it unlikely, if not impossible, for anyone to come and get Padma, but as a Rinpoche he needs teaching at a higher level and eventually to return to his “home”. So he and his guide, Urgyan have to make the journey themselves.

This is no small undertaking. Padma is about twelve and Urgyan must be about seventy or eighty and the journey will take about two to three months, much of it on foot . But full of hope, they set off on this perilous journey, stopping at various monasteries along the way to see if one will accept Padma for higher training.

This documentary was filmed on location, by a small crew of only two or three and took eight years to film and nine years to edit. This was mostly because the two main people on the team, Chang-yong Moon and Jin Jeon are based in South Korea and make documentaries for television so had to keep dropping this film, to work and to find funding.

Leaving aside the amazing and heart-breaking story, the spectacular scenery and visual delights of the settings makes this a film of exceptional interest. At its centre though is the astonishing love and fidelity shown by the older monk for the younger, and the desire of the younger one to return to Tibet.

We leave Padma Angdu in Sikkim, the nearest place he can get to near Tibet where a monastery accepts him for the training he needs and we see Urgyan turning for home…

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More read between the screens – final

As the London Film Festival draws to a close, my reading will change again to longer and more challenging books. I am not suggesting that the books I read during the Festival were in any way shoddy or trite; simply that they were chosen from the TBR pile on size rather than content.

DuffyThe final selection was the new book by Stella Duffy, a most versatile author, successful in many genres.  In The Hidden Room, she has returned to her thriller mode, though this is also a very intense lesbian love affair. I have always thought it must be tremendous fun writing thrillers, not necessarily the Scandi-noir gore fests, but the more psychological ones like this.

We find ourselves living with a family, two parents and three children.  The parents are both women and the children are all from either; one mother Mom, or the other Mum.

Hope is Laurie’s daughter and the twins, Amy and Jack, are Martha’s. They are good mothers, by any standard, and allow their children to pursue their various passions supportively, actively and all is going well.

The cracks start to widen though when Laurie, an architect, wins an impressive prize and begins to have more work further away from home, for longer and longer periods. Not that Martha feels anything but joy in Laurie’s success, her own home based web-design business makes this a perfectly, or imperfectly, workable arrangement.

Hope joins a dance class, and Martha becomes one of the teacher’s clients in his life skills counselling. Solomon is beautiful and helpful, and a good listener and for no obvious reason, Martha keeps this private.

Amy and Jack are sporty and follow a rigorous training together, mostly swimming and running; up early for training, off to school and after school more training; so it does not impinge on anyone’s consciousness when Hope begins to spend more and more time intensively training in her dance classes.

That is until…

Laurie also has her secrets and withholding the details of her past life is one of them, much of the detail of which she withholds for good reason, but this will not work in her favour forever.

This is a very tense and intriguing story, the narration zips along between the present and Laurie’s past.  We do not know all that much about Martha’s background – an ordinary life on a farm, which she wanted to escape to become an artist, fair enough. She is now often occupied helping her aging father, especially after the death of her mother; which is to say we do not revisit Martha’s childhood at the time it was happening, we only know how looking after her parents is affecting her now.

There are terrific, in the real sense, resonances here and the writing is compelling, vivid and engaging. You can hardly breathe as the tension rises, let alone put the book down.

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61st London Film Festival Day 10.ii

My second film of the day was in some ways rather a disappointment. A documentary about a Zen Buddhist community in the South of France, Plum Village, known now because of its “mindfulness” programme and the philosophy of its leader Thich Nhat Hahn.

Walk with meWalk With Me sounded as though it was a meditative look at Zen Buddhist life, and indeed in some ways that is exactly what it was, but I expected something a great deal more abstract. While several scenes were of sky, clouds, trees, water and sunrise; there was also a considerable amount of busy-ness.

Walking mindfully, eating mindfully, teaching and listening mindfully – so far so good, except there was so much of it; no sooner had the camera focussed on one thing, when it switched to something else.

Mercifully there was no sound-track as such, so we heard the natural sounds and the gongs, bells and singing; but mindfulness is as much about breathing mindfully as anything else, and this left one with hardly any time to draw breath.

AND THEN…my worst fears: Benedict Cumberbatch sententiously reading extracts from the journals of Thich Nhat Hahn. I understand that Mr Cumberbatch does actually follow this mindfulness practice, so was probably the ideal choice in that sense, but the solemn, sepulchral tone was a mistake; the thoughts were themselves profound, possibly; personal, evidently; and spiritual, definitely and as such, they did not need any added depth of feeling.

Made by the same team (Marc J Francis and Max Pugh) as Black Gold (LFF 2006) this was a good idea which missed its mark, for me at any rate.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 10.i

In the Special Presentation section, a film by Michael Haneke is never going to be a straightforward story, this sardonic and stylish observation piece is no exception. There are going to be several things going on at once and every now and then there will be a shot or a scene in which Haneke seems to be saying “catch-up people”.

Happy EndIn Happy End, we even start with one of these types of scenes. The film has a sequential start, between the credits we have a mobile-phone screen video, first of a women washing; then of Pips the hamster having been fed some of the mother’s anti-depressant pills…the effect is fatal.

We don’t yet know who is filming or indeed who is receiving this video story, that is not important at the time. The film “proper” opens on a huge building site, the main focus seems to be a large yellow earth mover, but suddenly way over on the other side of the building site, a wall collapses causing a large mud slide, then one of those blue site porta-loos tumbles down.

It turns out to have had someone in it.

The site is being managed on behalf of her father by Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) and her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is proving woefully inadequate as site manager.

We then switch to the story about Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) who turns up now in this household, her mother having overdosed. She is obviously very sad about this but goes willingly to live with her father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife and baby, Paul who also live with Anne (Thomas’ sister) and their father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is slowly sinking into a state of dementia.

As the relationships develop it quickly becomes apparent that Anne is involved with an Englishman, the ubiquitous Toby Jones. There is a possibility that Thomas is also having an affair, but apart from one call observed by Eve there is no actual evidence. But then this is a Michael Haneke film, nothing is there accidentally.

While this film is largely about relationships and consequences, it is  also an observation on aging, Georges hates his situation and tries in various way to remedy it, unsuccessfully though at times absurdly comic. The whole film has these occasional scenes and there were many outburst of laughter, even when the hamster dies from the overdose – a foreshadowing of the fate of Eve’s mother obviously.

The title is also a double entendre, this is set in Calais – the happy (ie rich) end of the town, but clearly there are migrants and poorer people about, the great unseen. The Laurent family don’t have to have anything to do with that – what with their servants, comfortably large house and money. But at the same time, relationships have endings as well, some happier than other perhaps and to all intents and purposes the final scene should be a fairy tale ending, except that it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

The ending is sublimely funny in a rather macabre way, and again we see much of it playing out on the same small phone screen.

There is great deal of food for thought and this film will be in UK screens at some point, possibly December or January. Definitely worth looking out for, if only for a marvellous ensemble cast.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.ii

Angel wear white

Angels Wear White could not have been more different. Though also a film about exploitation, this is set in a seaside town in South China. Directed and written by Vivien Qu, it follows the lives of some young schoolgirls and their indirect relationship with a young girl working in a motel.

Brilliantly cast, with young girls who were not necessarily actors, this film explores Ms Qu’s observation that in modern China, where families are becoming dis-united, parents sometimes working in different cities, leaving children with grandparents, relatives or alone, there is a growing and disturbing rise in young people living rough on the streets, sometimes working in the sex-industry or simply giving “favours” for food and accommodation.

Runaways without ID are also vulnerable to exploitation and do menial work in hotels and restaurants, low paid and borderline work which is neither legal or safe.

In this film the setting is a coastal town, there is a huge funfair at the gates of which is a gigantic statue of Marilyn Munroe (who some might also see as an icon of exploitation) in her famous dress malfunction pose in Some Like it Hot. Her high-heeled shoes are just about the same height as the first girl that we meet, the runaway hotel worker.

The story focuses upon bribery and corruption in the highest echelons of the justice service, and the behaviours which lead to blackmail and beatings. It is a compelling look at the underworld and although set in China, it has a universal message about how young people are treated in the 21st century.

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