Review: Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

Cathi Unsworth on the thawing of a frozen heart

Henning Mankell's new standalone novel opens similarly to its 2006 predecessor, Depths, on an island in the Swedish archipelago. Its themes of isolation and estrangement are similar too - but with one huge difference. There are no murders and little violence in Italian Shoes. A departure for a bestselling crime author best known for his creation of Inspector Wallander it may be, but Mankell's focus remains the same: this book is a voyage into the soul of a man.

Sixty-six-year-old Frederick Welin is woken just before dawn in darkest December by the sound of "the ice singing". This unearthly noise provokes in him a shiver of fear and the twinge of a long-discarded memory. A former surgeon, Frederick has spent the past 12 years holed up on the island he inherited from his grandparents, desperate to remain lost - both from his former life and himself.

But the past is coming back for him, tap-tap-tapping across the frozen sea. Christmas passes into New Year, until on 3 January, he spies a lone figure out there on the ice: a little old lady on a walker, making painful progress through the swirling blizzard. Harriet Hörnfeldt, the woman he had loved intensely in the summer of 1966 and then abandoned, has finally tracked Frederick down.

Harriet is dying of cancer. She claims she has come not for answers, nor recriminations, but to ask that Frederick honour "the most beautiful promise" he made to her nearly 40 years ago, that he would take her to a pool in the middle of the northern forests, where as a child he spent one idyllic day with his father.

Despite the fact that trying to find the pool will entail days of driving an old banger through the harshest weather in decades, what can he do but comply? The couple travel through a winter wonderland, where memories of former intimacies and the bitterness of betrayal flurry like the snow. Frederick cannot supply, even to himself, the reason why he abandoned Harriet. But the touch of her skin coaxes out other lost things: the shine of his father's neatly polished shoes, the scent of his mother's tears.

Bickering, fighting and rescuing abandoned dogs en route, they eventually find the magical pool, only for the ice to give way under Frederick's feet. Despite her frailty, Harriet manages to rescue and revive him. Still reeling from this brutal brush with death, Frederick drives on into the forest at Harriet's direction, towards another special place . . .

To describe what comes next would be to ruin the subsequent sequence of revelations, snares that Mankell has hidden with a hunter's skill inside this spectral landscape. Suffice to say that during his journey back to himself, Frederick will encounter characters with qualities dear to Mankell's heart: an outsider community of musicians, activists and artisan shoemakers squatting in abandoned forest dwellings; a woman who fosters runaway girls, traumatised refugees and asylum seekers.

As the flower of his past begins to unfurl, Frederick is made to see the futility of his attempt to abandon the human race. But can he make up for all that has been lost? Mankell does not shrink from the ugliness that accompanies the breaking down of Frederick's self-inflicted barricades. Yet more keenly felt is the promise of redemption that is only a snowflake's breadth away.

• Cathi Unsworth's The Singer is published by Serpent's Tail.

Cathi Unsworth

The GuardianTramp

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