Cold and poverty define Hanna Renstrom's childhood in remote northern Sweden, and in 1904, at nineteen, she boards a ship for Australia in hope of a better life. But none of her hopes--or fears--prepares her for the life she will lead. After two brief marriages both leave her widowed, she finds herself the owner of a bordello in Portuguese East Africa, a world where colonialism and white colonists rule, where she is isolated within white society by her profession and her gender, and, among the bordello's black prostitutes, by her color. As Hanna's story unfurls over the next several years in this "treacherous paradise," she wrestles with a devastating loneliness and with the racism she's meant to unthinkingly adopt. And as her life becomes increasingly intertwined with the prostitutes', she moves inexorably toward the moment when she will make a decision that defies all the expectations society has of her and, more important, those she has of herself.
Gripping in its drama, evocative and searing in its portrait of colonial Africa, "A Treacherous Paradise" is, at its heart, a deeply moving story of a woman who manages to wrench wisdom, empathy, and grace from the most unforgiving circumstances.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-06-03
- Reviewer: Staff
Africa features prominently in the work of Mankell (The Shadow Girls), both in his acclaimed Wallander mysteries and his many stand-alone books, including this fine historical set in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) in the early 20th century. Having no prospects, Hanna Lundmark (née Renström) is sent away to find work as a cook on a ship sailing for Australia, where she falls for an officer who dies on the voyage. Once docked in Lourenço Marques, the young widow finds her way to a hotel/brothel owned by Senhor Vaz, whose proposal of marriage Hannah accepts. When he too dies, Hannah inherits his brothel and tries to make sense of her life and the world. Like many Mankell novels, the plot seems strange, even incredible, in summary form, but his gift lies in the creation of a sequence of events that is credible and illuminating. The proverbial stranger in a strange land, Hanna is the lens that exposes the ugly realities of racism, sexism, and colonialism—easy targets, obviously, but this book is very much of a piece with Mankell’s nongenre, and more polemical, works. Hanna is a curious mix of helplessness and fortitude, and her story, like the story of Africa itself, is tragically sad. Agent: Anneli Hoier, Leonhardt & Hoier. (July 9)
Fleeting chances to take a stand
There are two Henning Mankells: One is doyen of the Swedish suspense genre and creator of the popular Kurt Wallander mystery series; the other contemplates the painful racial relationships between Europeans and Africans, as in The Eye of the Leopard. While lacking the page-turning propulsion of his Wallander books—and nearly devoid of all suspense, period—A Treacherous Paradise is nevertheless an engrossing read, driven by a woman’s evolution and the question she must ultimately face: What future will she choose when the choice is finally hers to make?
At the age of 18, Hanna Renström is defined by her powerlessness, as changes both permanent and frightening toss her one way or the other. Her early life is a series of passive events: Hanna is banished from her home in provincial Sweden; she is given a job as a cook on a ship bound for Australia; she is widowed after being married to a young sailor for mere weeks.
Suspense author Mankell changes gears with a racially charged story set in colonial Africa.
In her first deliberate act, Hanna escapes the impenetrable sorrow of the ship by disembarking in Portuguese East Africa and taking up residence in a brothel barely disguised as a hotel. Hanna marries the brothel owner and almost immediately finds herself widowed again, and so she becomes the proprietress of the bordello and its black prostitutes.
In turn-of-the-century Mozambique, where whites assert a perilous dominance over a simmering black population, Hanna’s status is determined by the color of her skin, a classification that chafes but is initially impossible to subvert. Her defining moment comes when a black woman kills a white man, and in an act of courage that edges on the unbelievable, Hanna aligns herself with the guilty woman, choosing gender over race.
Mankell, who divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique with “one foot in the snow and one foot in the sand,” comes at the postcolonial African narrative like so many European writers before him. A Treacherous Paradise is reactionary literature; like Conrad, and like Hanna herself, Mankell restages the players again and again to better understand the roles of racial imbalance, the unifying quality of fear and possibly his own place in the fold. Readers looking for some Wallander-style twists should keep looking, but fans of evenly paced tales of awakening will recognize the reward.