After The Fire
By Henning Mankell
Harvill Secker £17.99
Having condemned his much-loved detective Kurt Wallander to a long drawn-out descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s, Henning Mankell died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 67. The diagnosis came some time after the publication of that final Wallander book, A Troubled Man, but it’s not hard to read into the novel both Mankell’s desire to move on from the character in a way that was irreversible, but did not involve actually killing him, and also a growing awareness of his own approaching mortality.
It’s no surprise, then, that mortality is the overwhelming theme of Mankell’s final novel – mortality and the desperate need to finally connect with another human being after a lifetime of self-imposed emotional isolation.
After The Fire is a sequel to Mankell’s 2006 book Italian Shoes, though it can be read on its own (as it was in my case). Frederik Welin, a 69-year-old retired doctor living alone on an island in an archipelago off the Baltic coast of Sweden awakes one night to find his house on fire. The house is destroyed and the absence of any potential perpetrators leads the police to suspect that Welin himself committed the arson. With the threat of arrest hanging over him, he attempts to build a relationship with the daughter, Louise, he has only recently discovered he had, and about the details of whose life he is kept in ignorance. He also begins to fixate on a local newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, 30 years his junior, who comes to interview him.
As deaths among the local mainland community encroach upon his life, further fires at houses on the islands spread fear and incite suppressed prejudices, and he is required to extract his daughter from the clutches of the French police, Welin struggles to come to terms with the realities of ageing and loneliness and his own manifest failings.
Make no mistake, After The Fire is not a thriller – the crimes (the fires and a theft) are the background to the novel, not its driving force, and the unmasking of the arsonist is almost incidental, specific motives secondary to the wider psychological landscape. And if the book sounds somewhat bleak, it is. Welin – whose retirement was forced on him after he botched an operation – is not even an anti-hero, but unlikeable, selfish, a life-long dissembler, often self-deluding, a man who has spent a lifetime abandoning friends and lovers and who only reluctantly interacts with others on a human level.
It is the loss of the house, almost his last connection to life outside his own psyche – and particularly the memories of his upbringing, his parents and grandparents – that seems to jolt him into an awareness of the vast chasm that lies where his soul should be, a chasm he seeks to fill by his unlikely pursuit of Lisa, and his fractious relationship with Louise, who turns out to be a thief, pregnant, and caring in a way that was never part of her doctor father’s character.
This is a sparely written book (translated by Marlaine Delargy) that nonetheless, in addition to its central plot, offers a vivid insight into the kind of community that is dying out in the Scandinavian hinterland, another reflection of its overall theme of mortality. But crucially, After The Fire provides at its heart a convincing portrait of a man it is a relief not to resemble, yet for whom it is hard to have no sympathy at all. At the book’s end, there is at least some light to illuminate Welin’s darkness, and its effect is undoubtedly moving.