Once a successful surgeon, Frederick Welin now lives in self-imposed exile on an island in the Swedish archipelago. Nearly twelve years have passed since he was disgraced for attempting to cover up a tragic mishap on the operating table. One morning in the depths of winter, he sees a hunched figure struggling towards him across the ice. His past is about to catch up with him.
ITALIAN SHOES by Henning Mankell goes to prove, once again, that a really good writer is a really good writer, regardless of the genre, styling, or setting of the book. Exploring the themes of estrangement, loss, fear and isolation ITALIAN SHOES isn't a crime fiction novel, it's a poignant, beautiful, sad, uplifting and evocative look at a man, his life, his mistakes and his redemption.
Frederick Welin is sixty-six years old, a former surgeon who has spent the last 12 years of his life, purposely exiled to the island home that his grandparents left him. He has carved out a life with his dog, his cat, and occasional visits from Jansson the postman. Woken just before dawn on a dark December morning, the sound of the "ice singing" evokes memories of his past - his father, his grandparents, his island, his professional and personal mistakes.
In a strange way he's not surprised then, when early in the New Year his past comes back to him in the form of a little old lady on a walker, making painful slow progress across the ice towards him. He had loved Harriet Hörnfeldt intensely, and he'd abandoned her abruptly in 1966. Dying of cancer, she has come looking for him. She wants answers, she wants Frederick to finally make good on a promise he made all those years ago. She wants to see the pool in the middle of the northern forest, where he talked of one joyous day with his father.
A road journey, in a beat up old car, in the harshest weather in decades, follows. Unsure if he can even find the pond, the two embark not just on a quest for the place, but also, in a touchingly clumsy manner, some understanding of how they both got to where they are now jointly and separately in their lives. They argue and bicker, rescue abandoned dogs, leave behind Frederick's own pets in a mildly distracting way, but find the pool. Frederick nearly loses his own life on the ice in the pond, Harriet saves him, they move on in the journey, to somebody, somewhere... but more would be telling too much.
ITALIAN SHOES is a moving, tightly drawn portrait of a couple of people who could seem, on the face of it, emotionally shut down and withdrawn. What Mankell does is draw you into the lives and thoughts of Frederick mostly, and Harriet to a slightly lesser degree as Frederick is forced to consider his past and how he wants his future to be. What Mankell has done is written a central character who it is really easy to dislike, and yet... A profoundly self-centred man, Frederick's life has been an odd combination of bravado and running away. He's a faithless lover, a haphazard animal owner, a brilliant surgeon whose arrogance led him to make a profound mistake - which he ran away from. A snoop, a bad-tempered man, a loner who regards the world with suspicion there's an awful lot to dislike about Frederick, and yet, Frederick is very human and his slow, hesitant steps to redemption, recompense, are profoundly touching in the main because of their simple humanity.
Quiet, intense, low key almost ITALIAN SHOES is a beautiful, glorious tale of confrontation, human frailty and redemption.