There’s something magical about reading a book when you know absolutely nothing about it except that it’s been recommended by someone you trust. You dive into a mysterious place with no expectations for the journey, just the knowledge that a real adventure is hidden between the covers. (It’s similar with a movie that you know nothing about too, when it’s a good film and not just a blockbuster entertainment; but right now I’m talking about books.)
When I picked up the intriguingly named Italian Shoes by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, I knew absolutely nothing about the book or the author and the recommender is a friendly acquaintance rather than a close friend, someone I’ve only met briefly a couple of times and talked to a handful of times more on the phone. And yet I trusted her recommendation enough to pick up the book from the library. As often happens when I get unknown books from the library I was a little wary; but I decided to take the plunge. And then stayed up far too late several nights in a row because this is one of those books. The kind that grabs you and won’t let go.
So if you like that kind of plunge, stop reading now and go get the book. Then you’ll approach it with nothing more than I had going in. And maybe it will be magical for you too. If you need a bit more convincing, though, read on.
It’s not that the protagonist is a likable man. He’s not really. But he’s intriguing, an enigma, a stranger to everyone around him and most of all to himself. What was the mysterious catastrophe in his past? Why has he exiled himself on an island with a dog and a cat and no human contact except the occasional visits from the hypochondriac postman? Why is he so soul-dead that he must take a daily plunge into a hole cut into the ice to remind himself that he is still alive? And then who is this mysterious woman from his past who shows up one day walking across the ice with a walker? I suppose it’s not a surprise to find out that Mankell is best known for his mystery novels. This novel isn’t a mystery; but it does have much of the same flavor and structure.
I always feel more lonely when it’s cold. The book should have seemed cold and foreboding and yet there was a spark of life in the midst of this cold, frozen land. Something calling to the sleeper to awake? The ice is here to stay. The narrator wants to deny even the possibility of change. He has spent so much of his life running away from life, refusing to engage. He’s lonely, miserable, a snoop and a sneak. But for some reason I found myself rooting for him. I wanted the ice to thaw. I wanted to see what could possibly happen to wrench him back into the land of the living. And I wanted to know how he’d got to where he was. And what’s up with the title? How do Italian shoes fit into this grim ice-locked landscape?
Now if you’ve read this far you already know considerably more about the book than I did when I began to read. And I so want to preserve the mysteries to let you discover them for yourself. But I’m also dying to talk about it and don’t know anyone else who’s read it. I want to write about it because writing is how I process. So here’s the deal. I’m going to use a feature I don’t use very often and continue writing all my spoilers after the jump. If you want to read them, click “more”. If you want to just go get the book and read it with most of the mysteries intact, then stop here.