This bizarre and compelling tale from Swedish author Mankell, best known for his crime novels featuring detective Kurt Wallander (The Man Who Smiled, etc.), focuses on a tortured naval officer, Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, who has the important duty of taking soundings for secret naval channels in the approach to Stockholm at the outbreak of WWI. Like a skilled stonemason, Mankell builds his portrait of Svartman with infinite patience, adding details and highlights layer by layer: Svartman as a naval officer attached to but not a part of a crew; Svartman as husband to a wife willingly left behind as he pursues his secret mission; and Svartman as the obsessed seeker of Sara, the lone inhabitant of Halsskär, a desolate and isolated island. Mankell fully sounds the depths of Svartman's obsessions in a way so artful as to appear artless, creating a masterful portrait not only of Svartman but of the women in his life. This is a memorable and shocking psychological study. (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Depthsby Henning Mankell
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It is October 1914, and Swedish naval officer Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is charged with a secret mission to take depth readings around the Stockholm archipelago. In the course of his work, he lands on the rocky isle of Halsskär. It seems impossible for it to be habitable, yet it is home to the young widow Sara Fredrika, who lives in near-total isolation and is unaware that the world is at war.
A man of control and precision, Tobiasson-Svartman is overwhelmed by his attraction to the half-wild, illiterate Sara Fredrika, a total contrast to his reserved, elegant wife. Soon he enacts the worst of his impulses, turning into another, far more dangerous man, ready to trade in lies and even death to get closer to the lonely woman without losing hold of his wife. Matters of shame, fidelity, and duty are swept to sea as he struggles to maintain his parallel lives, with devastating consequences for the women who love him.
Henning Mankell, author of the internationally bestselling Kurt Wallander series and the critically acclaimed Chronicler of the Winds, once again proves himself a master of the novel with Depths, an arresting, disquieting story of obsession.
Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is the image of probity and rationality. An ace hydrographic engineer who accurately gauges distances and depths at a glance, Lars lulls himself to sleep each night clutching one of his sounding weights to his chest. He has married well but finds domesticity suffocating and much prefers the regimented, masculine environment aboard a naval vessel. In 1914, on a secret mission off the coast of Sweden, Lars discovers a beautiful woman living alone on a barren island. He spies on her from afar, becomes infatuated, and eventually ends up having an affair with her, ignoring the fact that his wife has just given birth back in Stockholm. Lars spins an increasingly complex web of lies to conceal each woman's existence from the other, and when it inevitably unravels he responds with shocking brutality. Is his true nature finally coming to the surface? Mankell's slow pacing requires some patience, and the Scandinavian gloom is oppressive. This nightmarish tale may remind older readers of Kobo Abe's classic novel The Woman in the Dunes(1964). Recommended for larger collections of European fiction.
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Read an Excerpt
The Secret Affinity with Leads
They used to say that when there was no wind the cries of the lunatics could be heard on the other side of the lake.
Especially in autumn. The cries belonged to autumn.
Autumn is when this story begins. In a damp fog, with the temperature hovering just above freezing, and a woman who suddenly realises that freedom is at hand. She has found a hole in a fence.
It is the autumn of 1937. The woman is called Kristina Tacker and for many years she has been locked away in the big asylum near Säter. All thoughts of time have lost their meaning for her.
She stares at the hole for ages, as if she does not grasp its significance. The fence has always been a barrier she should not get too close to. It is a boundary with a quite specific significance.
But this sudden change? This gap that has appeared in the fence? A door has been opened by an unknown hand, leading to what was until now forbidden territory. It takes a long time for it to sink in.
Then, cautiously, she crawls through the hole and finds herself on the other side. She stands, motionless, listening, her head hunched down between her tense shoulders, waiting for somebody to come and take hold of her.
For all the twenty-two years she has been shut away in the asylum she has never felt surrounded by people, only by puffs of breath. Puffs of breath are her invisible warders.
The big, heavy buildings are behind her, like sleeping beasts, ready to pounce. She waits. Time has stood still. Nobody comes to take her back.
Only after prolonged hesitation does she take a first step, then another, until she disappears into the trees.
She is in a coniferous forest. There is an acrid smell, reminiscent of rutting horses. She thinks she can make out a path. She makes slow progress, and only when she notices that the heavy breathing which surrounded her in the asylum is no longer there can she bring herself to turn round.
Nothing but trees on every side. She does not worry about the path having been a figment of her imagination and no longer discernible, as she is not going anywhere in particular. She is like scaffolding surrounding an empty space. She does not exist. Within the scaffolding there has never been a building, or a person.
Now she is moving very quickly through the forest, as if she did have an objective beyond the pine trees after all. From time to time she stands, stock-still, as if by degrees turning into a tree herself.
Time does not exist in the forest. Only trunks of trees, mostly pine, the occasional spruce, and sunbeams tumbling noiselessly to the damp earth.
She starts trembling. A pain comes creeping under her skin. At first she thinks it is that awful itchy feeling that affects her sometimes and forces the warders to strap her down to prevent her from scratching herself raw. Then it comes to her that there is another reason for her trembling.
She remembers that, once upon a time, she had a husband.
She has no idea what has prompted that memory. But she recalls very clearly having been married. His name was Lars, she remembers that. He had a scar over his left eye and was twenty-three centi-
metres taller than she was. That is all she can remember for the moment. Everything else has been repressed and banished into the darkness that fills her being.
But her memory is reviving. She stares round at the tree trunks in confusion. Why should she start thinking about her husband just here? A man who hated forests and was always drawn to the sea? A midshipman, and eventually a hydrographic survey engineer with the rank of Commander, employed on secret military missions?
The fog starts to disperse, melting away.
She stands rooted to the spot. A bird takes off, clattering somewhere out of sight. Then all is silent again.
My husband, Kristina Tacker thinks. I once had a husband, our lives were intertwined. Why do I remember him now, when I have found a hole in the fence and left all those watchful predators behind?
She searches her mind and among the trees for an answer.
There is none. There is nothing.
Late in the night the warders find Kristina Tacker.
It is frosty, the ground creaks under their feet. She is standing in the darkness, not moving, staring at a tree trunk. What she sees is not a pine tree but a remote lighthouse in a barren and deserted archipelago at the edge of the open sea. She scarcely notices that she is no longer alone with the silent tree trunks.
That day in the autumn of 1937 Kristina Tacker is fifty-seven years old. There is a trace of her former beauty lingering in her face. It is twelve years since she last uttered a word. Her hospital records repeat the phrase, day after day, year after year:
The patient is still beyond reach.
That same night: it is dark in her room in the rambling mental hospital. She is awake. A lighthouse beam sweeps past, time after time, like a silent tolling of light inside her head.
Twenty-three years earlier, also on an autumn day, her husband was contemplating the destroyer Svea, moored at the Galärvarv Quay in Stockholm. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman was a naval officer and cast a critical eye over the vessel. Beyond her soot-stained funnels he could make out Kastellet and Skeppsholm Church. The light was grey, forcing him to screw up his eyes.
Meet the Author
Henning Mankell is the prize-winning and internationally acclaimed author of the Inspector Wallander Mysteries, now dominating bestseller lists throughout Europe. He devotes much of his free time to working with AIDS charities in Africa, where he is also director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique.
- Mozambique, Africa
- Date of Birth:
- February 3, 1948
- Place of Birth:
- Stockholm, Sweden
- Folkskolan Elementary Shool, Sveg; Högre Allmäna Läroverket, Borås
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This portrait of a sociopathic character is deep and rich. When a flawed person is painted this well one realizes there is little difference between him and us. The interesting secondary female recluse really makes the book work. Get past the initial nval detail and you will be rewarded.
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I found this to be well worth reading a couple of times in paperback. The story is very different in some ways from the Wallander series that people are familiar with. The main character is not someone we grow to like. His inner world is dark and cold, just like the sea channels he wants to measure. Once I got beyond that in my reading I discovered a kind of poetry with solid appeal. Another difference would be the short written chapters, quite a few only a page. The economy of words helped me understand the character.
I've almost read all of Mankell's books and I've never been disappointed. This was an interesting story with a complicated main character. I loved the setting and the other characters and also the time period.
The setting of this novel is precisely its appeal. I was transported to and never left the island in the story. For reviewer,Anna Sophie -try another read of the novel. Haven't we all been in a moral black hole at one point or another? Lors is not an everyman but I think it his attention to detail that brings everything crashing down around him.
I admit that I enjoy the Wallander series the most. That said, it was very hard to stay interested in this book. It definitely does not grab you like Mankell's other books. Too much useless detail for my general reading taste - almost textbook like information, and for what? I'm not ever going to go out and measure an archipelago! I felt that it was too 'deep' (pun fully intended) and redundant in description of his character's thoughts and surroundings. If you are interested in technical fiction, then this is for you. But if you are looking for the pace and style of dialogue that Mankell utilizes in his Wallander series, then you will be bummed.