Henning Mankell. The Shadow Girls. 2001. New York: The New Press, 2012.
A poignant remove from the wonderful Wallander crime series, this is a discourse that befits an author who "divides his time between Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique." Immigration to Europe from third-world countries is changing the parameters there. Desperate illegal immigrants rarely make headlines. Mankell tells us what we don't know about how they fare living in a democracy under the radar. Humil―a well-published and popular poet―becomes inadvertently involved with the stories of several young women.
Loss of identity and freedom are the overwhelming issues for two of them, while a third is mired in cultural baggage brought intact to a new country. All share the depressing cloak of invisibility. None has a voice to exist as a real person. Humil, pathetically dominated by the women in his personal life, attempts to raise their voices. Their cryptic tales are a beginning, although one wonders why they trust the waffling Humil. His wayward sojourns into uncomfortable areas are punctuated with necessary comic relief from his oblivious publisher and irascible mother. Overall, Mankell is clearly more successful than Humil. A thought-provoking work.
Words/phrases: "emotional terrorism" (130). What a superb term.
Humlin stood frozen on the spot and held his breath. He felt he was going to have a dizzy spell. All these damned problems, he thought. An investment broker who wants to turn me into an incorporated company and a girl called Tea-Bag who sleeps on my couch and only fears the nightmares she carries on the inside. Where do my fears come from? From the knowledge that my shares are losing value and that Andrea places demands on me I can't meet. I fear my mother will write a masterpiece. I am afraid my publisher is going to drop me and that my next book will only sell a thousand copies. I'm afraid of scathing reviews, and of losing my tan. In short, I am afraid of anything that will reveal I am a person devoid of passion and true character. (199-200)
But I know that the bridge we all saw as we stood on the beach in the northernmost part of Africa, that continent we were fleeing and already mourning, that bridge will one day be built. It will be built, if only because the mountain of corpses pressed together on the bottom of the ocean will one day rise above the sea like a new country and a bridge of skulls and bones will form the bridge that no-one, no guards, dogs, drunk sailors, or smugglers will be able to topple. Only then will this cruel insanity come to a stop, these anxious flocks of people driven on in desperation only to end up living their lives in the underworld, becoming the cavemen of modern times. (328)
D.J. McIntosh. The Witch of Babylon. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2011.
If you don't know your Babylonians from your Assyrians, likewise Phrygians from Sumerians, then this book is for you. I thought it was for me: a leg up, if you will, on the Mesopotamian exhibit now showing in my town, but they lost me somewhere between Turkey and Iraq. Is Dan Brown ringing any bells? Well, McIntosh is a very learned scholar of middle eastern civilizations; she even provides notes and an comprehensive bibliography. Nonetheless, I stumbled at times over a certain clumsiness in propelling the story forward, in linking the activities of the many players. The insertion of a numerology-type game as part of the plot was insufficiently presented for the reader to follow, in my opinion.
Set at the time of the Desert War in Iraq, John Madison is a New York art dealer inexorably drawn into a drama engineered by others. The despicable looting of Baghdad is underway. Madison's world slowly crumbles as he is forced to locate a smuggled artifact. Much of the suspense depends on keeping track of who connects to whom and what his/her job is. People die. The archaeological and historical detail teeters on information overload even for this fan of the Fertile Crescent. A good story, the first in a trilogy, so one hopes for more fully-rounded characters and smoother transitions in the next.
Words/phrases: "artifacts, our reference markers for history"
Madison seeks refuge from stalkers:
The last time bus travel resembled anything close to upscale had to have been between the two world wars. No matter what the city, all bus terminals had that same sad, left-behind look. The Port Authority was a champion of the breed. A skin of sludge-brown ceramic tile surfaced the floor, walls, and massive square pillars. There seemed to be a conspiracy to keep the light as dim as possible. The exception was a giant artwork of glittering aluminum and multi-colored facets on the south wall. It hung there like a beautiful child abandoned in a public washroom. (175-176)
Inaugurated in 1926, the museum resulted from a collaboration between the Iraqi king Faisal and a remarkable Englishwoman, Gertrude Bell. Al-Khatun, they'd called her. An explorer, writer, and archaeologist, she'd dedicated a good part of her life to protecting Mesopotamian culture.
... I paused in front of a magnificent portrayal of a man grasping the bridles of two horses, sculpted as beautifully as anything done by the Greeks and Romans.
My guide summoned me. As we hurried away our footsteps echoed in the emptiness of the hallways. I felt saddened by what had been stolen, trampled underfoot, lost forever. Nothing really changes. All the great Mesopotamian cities had been destroyed in antiquity. More than two millennia later it was happening all over again. (303-304)
Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World is a brilliant exhibit from the British Museum (its only North American appearance at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, till 5 January 2014). As I suspected, the above book supplemented my visit. I was pleased to meet Kings Ashurnasirpal and Nebuchadnezzar among others. The amount of excavation and archaeological work in the ancient cities is astounding; the artistry is impeccable; the implicit loss from centuries of looting and destruction is grievous.