A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell – review

The Wallander author returns with a historical novel based on the true story of a brothel-owning Swedish woman in old Mozambique

Henning "Wallander" Mankell takes a fascinating historical fragment as the basis for this tale of Portuguese Africa. In the early 20th century, one of the biggest brothels in Lourenço Marques (now Mozambique's capital, Maputo) was owned by a white Swedish woman.

She crops up in tax records, but we know nothing else about her. Mankell names her Hanna and gives her a thoughtful nature (she "radiates an aura suggesting she is a totally genuine human being") and a harsh backstory: she grew up in Sweden's remote north, was pushed out by her poor family and ended up on a boat to Australia but never got there. The most successful parts of the novel portray the brutal, segregated life of Lourenço Marques – the black population lower their gaze to whites who may beat them for a slight, while the whites fear that outward pliability hides defiance. Hanna's decency is undermined by the society she finds herself in; when she embarks on a personal crusade, the town closes ranks. Mankell's writing can be drab but he tells a good story, and this is a grimly believable picture of how colonialism denigrates both servant and master.

• To order A Treacherous Paradise for £7.19 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.


James Smart

The GuardianTramp

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