This week, our regular group met to discuss Henning Mankell's contemplative and brooding novel, Italian Shoes. This is not a Kurt Wallander mystery, rather, it is a character study of a man who has removed himself from the world, but during one year, he is jolted into confronting his mistakes and begins to live again.
In order to start us all out on the same foot, here is the publisher's description of the plot:
From the bestselling author of the Kurt Wallander series comes a touching and intimate story about an embattled man’s unexpected chance at redemption. Many years ago a devastating mistake drove Fredrik Welkin into a life as far as possible from his former position as a surgeon, where he mistakenly amputated the wrong arm of one of his patients. Now he lives in a frozen landscape. Each morning he dips his body into the freezing lake surrounding his home to remind himself he’s alive. However, Welkins’s icy existence begins to thaw when he receives a visit from a guest who helps him embark on a journey to acceptance and understanding. Full of the graceful prose and deft characterization that have been the hallmarks of Mankell’s prose, Italian Shoes shows a modern master at the height of his powers, effortlessly delivering a remarkable novel about the most rewarding theme of all: hope.Before I talk about the details of our discussion, I want to say that this one of the deepest and most comprehensive discussion we ever had. This is a difficult book. It is dark and Fredrik is infuriating, but he grows and changes in a satisfying way, albeit very slowly. As a group, we decided this would be a difficult book to suggest to a wide audience as a simple leisure read; however, we did agree that any serious book discussion group would benefit greatly by reading and discussing this surprisingly intricate novel.
Now the discussion:
- We began the usual way, with our vote on who liked, disliked, and was so-so on the book: liked (5), disliked (2), and so-so (6). Normally so many so-sos would be bad for discussion, but in this case it was perfect. Why? These so-so people felt VERY strongly about the book. These were readers who were frustrated with the darkness and Fredrik's inaction, by the end, they were happy enough in his evolution, that they could not honestly say they disliked the book. They were in a love-hate relationship with this book and with Fredrik. Many of these so-so participants also said that they would not have finished the book if it were not for the discussion. Ultimately, they were happy they finished it.
- "Liked" initial comments: One participant liked how it was written; it's technique; the language; the division into 4 "movements;" the frame of happening within the span of 1 full year. Another person shared that she felt it was a beautiful interpretation of Swedish culture and the Swedish man. Yet another shared how while the plot was thin and bumpy at times, she loved the lovely sentences that were slipped in throughout. She also liked the setting the characters and their interactions, and the use of the seasons. Many liked how Sweden itself was a character, and how much they learned about the country and its different areas.
- "Disliked" initial comments: It was about as un-American and un-Female as you could get, so this participant could not relate. Some cited the intense deprivation and despair as a bit much. The tone was oppressive. These people agreed that Fredrik became more humane by the end, but these readers thought it was too little, too late.
- This led us to start discussing Fredrik in earnest. One lady began by saying, "Fredrik amputated himself from the world when he amputated the wrong arm." This sums up his life at the novel's beginning. The book is the story of how this man who always dealt with the problems in his life by running away, was forced to confront his own mistakes and begin living again. We liked how the women in his life are the catalyst to this change. When Harriet shows up on the ice, after almost 40 years, Fredrick can no longer ignore the world.
- On a side note, the group was so wrapped up in Fredrik and his choices that I had to remind them more than once that he was a fictional creation. That is the sign of a great fictional character, by the way. If the reader loses track of the fact that he or she is not real, the author has done a very good job.
- The title, Italian Shoes, was discussed. The title is an odd choice, but we came up with two related but different reasons as to what it "means." First, there is the literal presence of Italian shoes in the book. Harriet worked for an Italian shoe maker and Louise (Fredrik's daughter) takes Fredrik to the famous Italian shoe maker who lives in the Swedish woods upon their first meeting. When Fredrik receives the handmade shoes close to a year later, putting them on is the signal that his evolution has come full circle. He has begun to completely change his life, and by wearing the shoes, he confirms that it will stick. The shoes are the complete opposite of his former stark and emotionless life. They are sensual, extravagant, warm, and from the grown daughter he never knew existed. We also felt that the title is setting up the Italian and Swedish people as polar opposites. Fredrik talks about his visit to Rome as a young man when he was brutally mugged. Louise is obsessed with the Italian painter CaravaggioFredrik's experiences in Italy himself, are the exact opposite of Fredrik and his life.
- And then, we moved on to the best part of the discussion: the anthill! Fredrik has an anthill growing in his living room. Every single person had something to say about this literary device. Here are the comments:
- The anthill was the physical manifestation of Fredrik's emotional baggage.
- Ants are very busy and productive, while Fredrik was not.
- Fredrik could not bear to remove the anthill since it was the only living and vibrant thing in his life. He had pets, but both were old and actively dying.
- Watching the anthill grow is a symbol of Fredrik's inertia.
- The anthill shows that life goes on. Even if you try to ignore the world, you cannot stop it from continuing.
- When Fredrik picks up the anthill and removes it at the end, it is a very power symbol of the fact that he had changed his life.
- Harriet put a bottle with a note in the anthill because she knew that when he was ready to remove the anthill, he would also be ready to read the note. She also knew this moment would be after she succumbed to the cancer that was killing her.
- The anthill was an extremely effective metaphor. No one likes having ants in their home. It is a visceral image. It got us talking. We all thought it was a very clever inclusion.
- We moved on to other characters. People found Agnes, the woman who Frederik had amputated incorrectly, one of the most intriguing characters. We only get the beginning of her story; in fact, one participant wished we got more of her point of view. We liked how the book is about Fredrik, but it is the women who force him to confront himself. We were also intrigued by how the women were all suffering on the inside, yet they could still function within the world. They needed to teach him how to move on.
- We talked about the 4 movements which make up this book and how they were loosely tied to the seasons. Each was also a setting itself. Here is some of what we said. First was "Ice. Here Harriet shows up on the ice to start the story, but also, ice signifies no feeling, no emotion. Second was "Forest." This is when Fredrik meets Louise (in the Forest), but also the forest is life, it is green, full of life, and spring is coming so it is awakening (like Fredrik). Third is "Sea." The sea is a symbol of journeys. This is when the story has the most movement; both physical, literal, and emotional movement. And the fourth is called "Winter Solstice." This is the longest night of the year, but it is also the symbol of a new beginning because the next day the nights begin to shorten again.
- Some final comments:
- The book ends hopefully. We are glad Fredrik did not die just as he was turning his life around. It was uplifting to see a man who had created his own prison begin to break free.
- All of the women in the book functioned with severe limitations: Harriet is dying and needs a walker, Agnes is without an arm, Louise has spent her entire life looking for her father.
- For such a bleak book, we spent a lot of time during the discussion laughing. I cannot figure out why; maybe it was to counteract the dark tone, but we were lively (as one library staff member put it).
- Mankell is so talented, shared one participant. His technique alone drew this reader in.
- While the story was depressing at times, the words, the style, and the story were so consciously constructed some of us were wrapped up in how it was written and how Mankell was manipulating our emotions.
- We agreed that this short book must have taken a long time for him to write.
Readalikes: When Kathy's Night Owl's group discussed Italian Shoes, she suggested these readalikes. Fiction: The Sea by John Banville, Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson, and Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (a book I have always meant to read). Nonfiction: Rogue River Journal by John Daniel, On My Swedish Island by Jule Catterson Lindhal, and Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White.
Our group also felt that those who enjoyed the story line of Agnes, Sima, and the refugee girls, would also enjoy Little Bee, which we discussed here.
Next book discussion(s): Tonight, I will be leading Kathy's book club's discussion of Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo. The Monday group discussed it back in January.
My Monday group will tackle Doris Kearns Goodwin's memoir, Wait Till Next Year in June.
Finally, both groups are voting on the July-December titles this week. I will post the new titles and schedule some time next week.