Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

imageYou know that the narrator, Fredrik Welin, lives alone on an icy, remote island in Sweden where the only person he sees with any regularity is Jansson, the postman. You know he was once a surgeon, but some catastrophic mistake has ended that period of his life. You know that he once loved Harriet, but left her quite suddenly one day, completely unexpectedly.

This isn’t a mystery as one would expect from the Scandinavian crime authors. But it carries an atmosphere of underlying suspense which is relentless, while closely observing the loneliness of an isolated life.

Fredrik breaks the hole in the ice every morning so that he can submerge his body in the freezing water, just to remind himself he’s still alive. And one day, when he looks up, he sees Harriet with a walker watching him. It has been decades since he last saw her, and she tells him he must fulfill his promise to take her to a lake in the northern region where he had once gone with his father.

Their journey involves looking back at the life they’d had together which had been so abruptly interrupted. It also involves a visit to an Italian shoe maker, so skilled in his craft that he only makes one or two custom pairs of shoes a year.

“I’ve been to Rome,” said Harriet. “My whole life has revolved around shoes. What I thought was just a coincidence when I was young, working in a shoe shop because my father had once worked as a foreman at Oscaria in Orebro, turned out to be something that would effect the whole of my life. All I’ve ever done, really, is wake up morning after morning and think about shoes. I once went to Rome and stayed there for a month as an apprentice to an old master craftsman who made shoes for the richest feet in the world. He devoted as much care to each pair as Stradivari did to his violins. He used to believe feet had personalities of their own. An opera singer – I can no longer remember her name – had spiteful feet that never took their shoes seriously or showed them any respect. On the other hand, a Hungarian businessman had feet that displayed tenderness toward their shoes. I learned something from that old man about shoes and art. Selling shoes was never the same after that.” p. 46

I’m not quite sure how, even after finishing this novel several weeks ago and thinking about it often since, Italian shoes fit into the story. Except for this quote:

I remembered her once saying that life was like your shoes. You couldn’t simply expect or imagine that your shoes would fit perfectly. Shoes that pinched your feet were a fact of life. p. 57

Italian Shoes is a tender sort of novel, not necessarily a thriller, that shows a tender side of Henning Mankell. If you only know him from his Kurt Wallander series, you might well enjoy this poignant novel told from the point of view of a 65 year old man revisiting his past. Thus able to face his future.