Henning Mankell is the creator of Inspector Kurt Wallender, very famous in the Scandanvian countries and immortalied on TV and movie screens. In recent years the BBC has introduced Wallender to an English speaking audience with the flawless Kenneth Branagh in the title role solving gruesome murders and dealing with his own demons. And captivating stuff it is.  But the author does not write only mystery thrillers set in Sweden. He has a deep affinity for Africa, in particular Mozambique, beautifully illustrated in this historical novel set in the early 1900s when Mozambique was in it's Portuguese hey day. This story has a tiny thread of truth to it, in that the author found a mention in some archival material that one of the largest taxpayers in the colony in the early 1900s was a Swedish woman who owned nine brothels. What a gem of an idea for a story! How on earth did a Swedish woman come to a Portuguese colony and end up a rich woman owning nine brothels!

When the story begins, Hanna Restrom is 18 years old. She lives a pretty bleak life in rural Sweden, until her recently widowed mother arranges work for her in the home of a family friend some distance away in a coastal town. For Hanna, life begins when she says farewell to her mother and makes the long journey to the new town. It isn't long before she gets the opportunity to work as a cook on a ship that transports timber to Australia - and yes, apparently this did happen and was not unusual. Within three short months, she is married and widowed, and unable to bear her predicament any longer, she basically jumps ship when it docks at Lourenco Marques, Mozambique. Here the events unfold that lead to her becoming a wealthy woman and brothel owner. But as suddenly as she appears in the old colonial ledger books, she also disappears. And this forms the rest of the novel.

Hanna recreates herself several times during the few years she lives in Lourenco Marques, and as a white woman in a largely black population under rigorously enforced Portuguese control, she is in a very privileged position. It does not take her long to see the injustices going on around her, with the way the local populace is treated, and the attitudes of disdain and prejudice that prevail. This conflict, and her increasing unwillingness to tow the line, become the key drivers in Hanna's  life, and in her dealings with her employees, house servants, and others. As you have probably gathered it does not end happily.

The story itself is well worth reading, but the writing too is quite bewitching. We feel the overwhelming African heat, the loneliness and isolation Hanna feels in her highly unusual position in the local society, her constant feeling of alienation in this very foreign environment, the menacing undertone at the imbalance of power between native African and white interloper. It is very good, and lingers for quite some time after finishing. I really look forward to reading more of this author.

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