10 April 2010
Review: THE MAN FROM BEIJING, Henning Mankell
File Size: 692 KB
Print Length: 368 pages
Publisher: CCV Digital (January 28, 2010)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
English translation Laurie Thompson
2006: the remote Swedish village of Hesjövallen is one of those tiny northern villages where a declining population of mainly elderly people ensures relatively limited contact with the outside world. The horrific slaughter of 19 residents (including one child who shouldn't have been there) makes this the worst homicide bar one that Sweden has ever seen.
Birgitta Roslin, a district-court judge in the Swedish city of Helsingborg, realises the village is the one where her mother was once fostered out and tries to find out if her mother's foster parents are among the dead.
Homicide on this scale is beyond the resources of the local police, but in charge is Vivi Sondberg, a diligent and hard-working police officer, persistent and analytical, but she wants a local explanation.
In fact the explanation is far from local. It reaches 140 years from the past to exact revenge for acts committed in far different times. Birgitta Roslin's analytical mind is piqued when she finds diaries and letters in her mother's foster parents' house and when she realises most of the people in the villages must be related to each other.
I'm not going to tell you more of the story - you need to let it unfold for yourself. Let me just tell you that THE MAN FROM BEIJING is among my best reads so far this year. I've seen reviews that criticise the length of this book, and perhaps they are right. Henning Mankell has used an extraordinarily large canvas - in part as a platform for his criticisms not only of today's Norwegian society but also what might happen in Mozambique, where he lives, and other African countries, as a result of Chinese economic colonialism.
However I think the length was probably necessary to give the reader sufficient social and political understanding. For me it wasn't a slow read - the tension builds well, despite the fact that we really do know who was responsible for the killings from about half way through the book.
What struck me about Mankell's canvas is how global the threads are that connect this world we are now part of. This is a phenomenon that has been growing since the early industrialisation of the 19th century, where most of us in the "new countries" have strings, sometimes gossamer thin, sometimes much stronger, that connect us to an old world that existed only 200 years ago. And today telecommunications are changing our world ever more radically, but the threads that tie us to the old are still there, invisible, lurking, sometimes surfacing in most unexpected ways.
And I liked THE MAN FROM BEIJING not only because it gave me a lot to think about, but because Mankell created in it several very strong characters. Birgitta Roslin's refusal to leave questions unanswered contrasts with Vivi Sondberg's apparent willingness to accept the easy answers. I had high hopes of Vivi but she played true to form. There are many side plots to enjoy too.
My rating: 5.0
A word of warning: despite the fact that the cover image of this edition at least shows what appears to be Kenneth Branagh, this is NOT a Kurt Wallander novel.