Sunday, May 13, 2007

#32 Depths - Henning Mankell

I was halfway through this book before I declared the death of my reading challenges, so maybe all is not lost.

While Depths isn't a Wallander mystery, it still retains many of the qualities that Mankell displays in his popular detective series, especially in tone and narrative style. Mankell has never been an author to shy away from the bleaker aspects of human nature, and Depths is no exception.

The novel, set during the First World War in Sweden, opens years in advance of the main story, as one its main characters, Kristina Tracker, the wife of naval Commander Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, escapes from the mental hospital that has been her home for many years and stands alone in the forest contemplating one memory: that she once had a husband.

From there, the narrative switches point of view, and the story becomes entirely Lars's. He's an exacting kind of man, with a mind that has a unique talent with measurements; a man who is drawn inexorably to the sea, who uses his unique skills to become a hydrographic survey engineer for the Swedish navy.

While on a mission, Lars discovers a young woman named Sara Fredrika living on a Halsskär, a skerry close to where they are measuring the depths of the sea. Soon he becomes obsessed with the woman, and the friction between the life he has in Stockholm with Kristina Tracker, and the one he desires on Halsskär turn Lars into a man even he would not recognize. His longing to escape from both of his two disparate worlds drives him to desperate acts, those of which bring the novel to its tragic conclusions.

Mankell shows with the novel that the ache of humanity that drives the overwhelmingly brooding yet wonderful Wallander series can carry into a more literary, artistic novel. His voice in this book is clear yet abrupt. Depths has short, succinct chapters, barely longer than two or three pages each, yet the story feels rich, flushed out and complete. Mankell's sea, and how it relates to Tobiasson-Svartman's consciousness, becomes almost a secondary character in the novel; it's described beautifully and at length, and it's easy to understand Lars's connection to it, both psychologically and physically.

The Swedish entry in my Around the World in 52 Countries challenge, for once I felt a sincere and complex connection to the setting in the novel. Depths is a novel all about landscape, bleak, cold winters, rolling storms, the power of the sea, and the deep impact that war has on the men in its service. It makes me think that I'd love to read anything Mankell writes outside of the Wallander series, not that they aren't great books, because they are, but Depths satisfies in an entirely different way.

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