Among the countless books and plays written by the masterful Swedish writer Henning Mankell are nine novels and one collection of five short stories about the life and work of a troubled police detective named Kurt Wallander in the town of Ystad, Sweden. The Wallander series, which has been produced on television both in Sweden and in the UK (starring Kenneth Branagh), is one of the best collections of crime novels I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot of them. But Mankell unaccountably set aside the complex detective in 2011 to devote himself to other writing projects. If A Treacherous Paradise, his most recent novel, is any indication, he should have stuck to crime in Sweden. His book about colonial Africa simply doesn’t measure up to his other work.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

There’s nothing wrong with A Treacherous Paradise that a more interesting plot couldn’t have cured. Mankell knows how to keep a story moving and to hold a reader’s attention, and he perceives the hidden complexities and contradictions in human character. However, this simple tale of a young woman named Hanna Renstrom who leaves her home in the famine-stricken Swedish countryside in 1904 and soon finds herself in Africa through misadventure is . . . well, it’s just not interesting enough.

Complications galore in Hanna’s life

True enough, there are complications galore in Hanna’s life: she is twice widowed in the course of the novel, and she ends up owning and running a brothel. And Mankell scrapes away the surface of life in what was then called Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) to reveal the underlying fear and desperation that afflicts both masters and servants. But Hanna’s erratic behavior is frequently difficult to understand. Maybe a murder or two would have enlivened this tale!

For many years, Henning Mankell has spent at least half of every year living in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where he works as artistic director of a local theater. He is an outspoken leftist activist and is married to Ingmar Bergman’s daughter.

A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell ★★★☆☆

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