A Treacherous Paradise

Written by Henning Mankell
Review by Audra Friend

The famed author of the popular Kurt Wallender series takes a real-life historical tidbit and expands it into a meaty novel of colonialism, race, freedom, the shaping of one’s identity, and the search for happiness.

Opening in 2002 with the discovery of a mysterious diary in a hotel in Beira, Mozambique, the novel quickly dives into the past. In 1903, a young Swedish woman, Hanna, finds herself driven from her home when famine strikes, and due to the kindness of a family acquaintance, ends up on a ship bound for Australia. But heartache, abandonment, and loss seem to cling to Hanna, who finds herself a widow within weeks. When her ship docks in Portuguese East Africa, she slips off and makes camp in the coastal trading city of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, the capital of Mozambique).

There, Hanna becomes the unlikely owner of a brothel, and through her employees – native women of color – experiences firsthand the brutal realities of colonialism, racism, prejudice, and violence. Rather than embrace the attitude of white superiority or even ignore the treatment of local blacks at the hands of white colonialists, Hanna instead strikes out in an unlikely – and unpopular – way.

Mankell has lived in Mozambique part-time since the 1980s, and his love for the people and country are clearly seen, even as he critiques the ruinous impact of colonialism. Reminiscent of Sena Jeter Naslund or Jeanette Winterson, Mankell’s novel imagines an unusual heroine unique in her time, articulated in a straightforward but thoughtful manner. The writing style is descriptive, rich with detail that evokes the grimy, sweaty, and rugged urban center where the novel is set, and occasionally disturbing, as Hanna’s journey in finding herself is not simple, boring, or safe.