Nancy McKibben's Reviews > The Shadow Girls

The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell
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Recommended for: readers who don't mind an odd book

The Shadow Girls
By Henning Mankell

This book was nothing like I expected. It begins seriously, with a chapter about a young Nigerian (the reader is guessing) undocumented immigrant woman who ends up in Sweden. Then in the second chapter we meet the Swede Jesper Humlin, “one of the most successful writers of his generation, who was worried about losing his tan. This fear easily surpassed his other anxieties, such as the fate of the impenetrable collections of poetry he published every year on the sixth of October, which happened to coincide with his mother’s birthday.”

Jesper’s life, we learn, is out of his control. His publisher insists that Jesper is to write a crime novel and proceeds to invent a title and send press releases about it, ignoring Jesper’s protestations. His broker has invested and lost most of his money. (“I’ll be in touch when things look better again.” “And when will that be?” “Shortly.” “How soon is that?” “In a few weeks. Ten years at the most.” ) His obstreperous eighty-eight-year-old mother has a job doing phone sex calls.

Into this absurdist world fall three immigrant women, the shadow girls. Jesper is roped into conducting a writing seminar for them (also attended by various relatives, since the girls who are Muslim must be accompanied by male relatives), and he begins to learn their stories. Or does he? All three women continually change their names, their nationalities and their stories.

Tanya, the Russian, was lured to Estonia and forced into prostitution. She has escaped to Sweden, where she steals, sniffs glue to escape her memories and hides from the authorities. The Nigerian girl, whose name, Tea Bag, is clearly an alias, ran from a country where her family was murdered. Leyla, the Muslim, is trapped by her family’s traditional ways - her sister, whose brother-in-law threw acid on her face after she tried to escape a forced marriage, hides in her apartment behind a veil.

Jesper tries to learn these stories, which shift and seem interchangeable - all the girls are living shadow lives, trying to be invisible. They have escaped immediate harm, but they are not really out of harm’s way, since the Swedish government would deport them. By the end of the book, Jesper has learned enough to shake him out of his complacency and help him realize that there are many undocumented immigrants in Sweden who are far from sharing his comfortable life.

Henning Mankel is a well-known Swedish author (although I was not familiar with him), and he uses this work of fiction not only to weave an interesting story, but to insert the shadow lives of undocumented immigrants indelibly into the reader’s mind.

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Reading Progress

October 27, 2013 – Started Reading
October 27, 2013 – Finished Reading
October 28, 2013 – Shelved
October 28, 2013 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
October 28, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed

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