‘After the Fire,’ by Henning Mankell
If you are young enough to be baffled by a grey-haired man wearing odd wellington boots, or you are reading this while trying to remember why you came into the room in the first place, then Henning Mankell’s character Fredrik will give you a wonderful insight to the elderly mind. This is the continuation of his story from the novel, ‘Italian Shoes,’ but stands alone, satisfying without reading the first one.
Mankell, best known to crime readers for his Wallander detective series, in this his final novel, ‘After the Fire,’ takes us to a fictional archipelago off Stockholm, Sweden. Where retired surgeon Fredrik Welin lives alone on a small island inherited from his grandparents and drenched in memories from his own early years.
He regularly visits a larger island in his boat for supplies, and on one occasion to order Swedish wellington boots which are often in his thoughts, but don’t make their debut until near the end of the story.
His choice of the lonely life, in part, is a need to distance himself from a surgical error involving the amputation of a patients arm and leading to his own retirement.
Human contact is restricted to his hypochondriac postman, Jansson, who reads the islander’s mail. He is generous, transporting Fredrik, when necessary, back and forth in his boat, and in return takes advantage of the medic’s skills to check his aches and pains and blood pressure. His other human contacts are the traders across the water in the town’s stores and café and Rut Oslovski, a lady who is rebuilding a classic car and allows Fredrik to keep his car on her property.
His house has burnt down during the night and Fredrik has escaped. The police inspection points to arson so, soon Fredrik is suspected as the culprit, which is not surprising on an island populated by one.
He moves into the caravan his 40-year-old daughter, Louise uses on her irregular visits. He was unaware of her existence until late in life and they have a distrust of each other. Not helped by her unannounced arrivals and departures and long absences. She is a political activist and has stripped naked in front of politicians to make a point. She returns to the Island on hearing about the fire, but soon disappears without explanation.
Lisa Modin, a journalist on the local paper visits to cover the story of the fire. Fredrik is soon speculating about having a relationship with the younger woman and invites himself to her home at night. She allows him to stay, sleeping on the settee. Intrigued by her, he searches her possessions while she is sleeping and uncovers a family secret.
Lisa is interested in establishing the cause of the fire and pays visits to Fredrik’s Island. Although there are several sleepovers, the complicated pair don’t rush into a relationship.
Fredrik is troubled by a number of incidents; flashing lights at night, the unexplained absences of Rut Oslovski from her home, evidence found of an unknown camper, his missing watch and the sudden deaths of local people. Has he become insane and burnt his own house down as the police suspect?
Louise calls him from Paris where she is in trouble with the police. Fredrik travels to help her and learns that she lives there with a partner. They warm a little to each other and discuss re-building the house, when the insurers pay up. Lisa Modin joins him in Paris and they learn of another house fire back on the archipelago. Further fires break out, but in the small cast of characters the reader can find few suspects.
Eventually all the strange happenings are resolved.
With most of his life behind him, the physical appearance of present-day people and places remind Fredrik of people and things that went before. A lady shopping brings on thoughts of an old lover and his regret at the way he treated her. These flashbacks are seamlessly wrought into the story by Mankell and didn’t stall the yarn, but enhanced my empathy for the appealing character.
The harsh climate is portrayed with relentless images; Fredrik taking his daily dip in the freezing seawater, Harriet, Louise’s mother pushing a Zimmer frame to walk across the frozen sea. The weather also marks the passage of time; ‘It was the first night I’d worn socks in bed.’
Unlike the Wallander novels this is not a crime story, although born from arson. It will appeal to readers who enjoy a more literary work.
Henning Mankell died of cancer at the age of 67, in 2015, the year the book was published. Fredrik’s story must give an insight into Mankell’s own closing thoughts.
By Ken Tracey