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.

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