“After the Fire” by Henning Mankell (Vintage, 399 pages, $16.95)
The Swedish writer Henning Mankell was a leading light in the literary genre known as Scandinavian Noir. Mankell was famous for his character Kurt Wallander, a Swedish police inspector. The Wallander books inspired a popular TV series. Mankell died in 2015.
His final novel is “After the Fire.” In the afterward, Mankell observed that “a shoreline is always something unfinished, slipping away, drifting. A piece of fiction relates to reality in the same way.”
“After the Fire” takes place along various Swedish shorelines. It is narrated by Fredrick Welin. It begins as he reflects upon the fact that his house burned down almost a year ago. He flashes us back to the night of the fire, then we proceed along the timeline that followed.
Welin was sound asleep — he woke because he noticed that everything suddenly got quite bright. The house was already an inferno. He barely makes it out; afterward, “I realised I had pulled on two left boots in my haste.”
Welin leads a hermit-like existence. He owns this small island. The house was passed down from his grandparents. All of his worldly goods went up in flames. His friend Jansson arrives quickly at the scene. Jansson notices the mismatched boots and tells Fredrick he’ll get him a proper one for his right foot.
Our narrator contemplates his existence. At one time he was a surgeon.
Apparently he botched a surgical procedure rather badly and stopped practicing medicine. But he still considers himself to be a physician and whenever Jansson complains about some health matter he will provide his friend with a check-up right there on the spot.
Jansson is around 70, the same as Fredrick. For years Jansson delivered mail throughout the sparsely populated islands. Fredrick, who has a car on the mainland, doesn’t want his mail delivered to the island. Whenever he needs to go to town he calls Jansson, and the former postman retrieves him in his boat to shuttle him across.
After the fire a young newspaper reporter comes over to interview Fredrick. He’s smitten with her and wonders if she might be interested in more than a news story. Fredrick has a daughter named Louise. They are estranged. He did not know she existed until she was already an adult. He doesn’t know where she lives or what she does to earn a living. Fredrick’s life has been one continuous series of sloppy messes.
Upon losing his house Fredrick moves into a caravan camper that was on his property. He’s an eccentric. He takes his daily dip in icy ocean waters. The locals consider him peculiar because he cuts holes in the ice to take frigid constitutionals.
“After the Fire” is a mystery novel. The main mystery revolves around the identity of the person who burned down the house. The police wonder if Fredrick committed an act of arson for the insurance money.
The book is also a meditation on death and mortality. For a lonely soul like Fredrick, the concept of death signifies the ultimate estrangement.
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Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.