Henning Mankell was, I think, the first Swedish author I read and I enjoyed his standalone books as much as his Wallander series. Mankell died in 2015 and his final book, After the Fire, has recently been published. It features Fredrik Welin who appears in the 2010 novel, Italian Shoes which I haven’t read and I was a bit daunted at starting what might be a difficult book to read without the backstory of the protagonist. As it turns out, After the Fire, works perfectly well as a standalone and was a substantial and interesting read.
Welin lives alone on an island in a Swedish archipelago and wakes up one night to find his house on fire. Although he manages to save himself, he is left with only the clothes he stands in and some money in his bank account. The police suspect that the fire was started deliberately and that Welin might himself be responsible for the destruction of his property. When his daughter, Louise, returns from France to see the remains of the house, old wounds and tensions resurface as Welin struggles to rebuild his life.
I suspected that After the Fire wasn’t particularly a crime novel and, although there’s a criminal act at the heart of the book, it’s as much a novel about loss, family and fragile friendships. Welin is of an age where his friends and acquaintances are infirm or dying and he’s wondering if he has the energy to start afresh. His relationship with his daughter is a difficult read. I found Louise to be incredibly unlikable as a character and nearly stopped reading the book as she’s just so destructive and her motivations are hard to fathom. Better portrayed is Welin’s relationship with the journalist Lisa Modin and his friendship with his former postman Jansson. During the course of the story, Welin has to cope with the gap between what he wants and what others are willing to give him.
Ultimately After the Fire is a satisfying read and left me with a sense of a life picking up. The relationships portrayed are bleak in parts and verged on the depressing which is unusual for Mankell’s writing. There’s certainly a sense of an older man coming to terms with loss and grief and I’d be interested to read of others’ responses to the story.