The Shadow Girls

The Shadow Girls

4.3 12
by Henning Mankell

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Jesper Humlin is a mildly famous author and poet with lackluster book sales. Not even his editor will support his artistic vision, suggesting instead that he start writing crime novels in the place of poetry. In his travels, Humlin encounters three women who will change his worldview. All three have fled their home countries and settled in Sweden: Leyla from


Jesper Humlin is a mildly famous author and poet with lackluster book sales. Not even his editor will support his artistic vision, suggesting instead that he start writing crime novels in the place of poetry. In his travels, Humlin encounters three women who will change his worldview. All three have fled their home countries and settled in Sweden: Leyla from Iran, Tanya from Russia, and Tea-Bag from Nigeria. The women look to Humlin for guidance in telling their stories, learning how to shape the tales of their journeys and sacrifices. Both social comedy and social tragedy ensue from these efforts, but in the end Humlin, Leyla, Tanya and Tea-Bag all find that they have helped change one another.
The Shadow Girls is an absorbing tale of how a diverse society changes—and is changed by—its citizens, whoever they are

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“At once darkly absurd, funny, passionate, wrenching and deeply socially aware. . . . [And] a heartfelt reminder of the many people whose struggles are never known.”
     —The Plain Dealer

“Passionate and entertaining. . . . Mankell writes with both a social conscience and great humor.”
     —The Daily Telegraph (London)

“A serious novel with a lot of heart.” 

“Mankell is giving a voice to those who do not possess one.” 
     —The Independent (London)
“Henning Mankell works . . . astounding magic. . . . He brings us the distinctive but overlapping voices of three perceptive young women who, once their harrowing, poetic floods of pain are released, can never again be ignored.”
     —Washington Independent Review of Books

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Chapter One


it was one of the last days of the twentieth century.

The girl with the big smile was awakened by the sound of raindrops hitting the tent cover above her head. as long as she kept her eyes closed she could imagine that she was still back in the village by the cold, clear river that spilled down the side of the mountain. But as soon as she opened her eyes she was thrown out into an empty and unfathomable world, one in which nothing of her past remained except disjointed images of her escape. She lay still and slowly let herself float up into consciousness, trying not to leave her dreams without preparing herself. These first few minutes of the morning often determined the way her day would turn out. during the three months in the refugee camp she had developed a morning ritual that helped her avoid being overcome with sudden panic. The most important thing was not to rush up from her uncomfortable cot with the misguided notion that something momentous was about to occur. By now she knew that nothing ever happened here. This was the first lesson she learned after she had dragged herself onto the rocky european beach and been greeted by guard dogs and armed Spanish border guards.

Being a refugee meant being lonely. This was something that was true for them all, regardless of what country they had come from or what circumstances had forced them to flee. She didn’t expect her loneliness to leave her soon, in fact she had prepared herself to live with it for a long time.

As she lay with her eyes closed she searched for a foothold in the confusion of all that had happened since her arrival. She was being held in a refugee camp in southern Spain, lucky to be one of the few survivors from that mouldering ship from africa. She could still remember the air of expectation aboard. Freedom has a scent, she thought, which only grew more overpowering as land approached. Freedom, security, these were what they wanted. a life where fear, hunger, and hopelessness were not the only reality.

It had been a cargo-hold of hope, she thought; although it was perhaps more correct to call it a cargo-hold of illusions. everyone who had been waiting on the Moroccan beach that night and who had placed their lives in the hands of the ruthless human smugglers had been ferried over to the waiting ship. Sailors who were little more than shadows had forced them down into the cargo area, as if they were modern-day slaves.

But there had been no iron chains around their ankles. what had ensnared them were their dreams, their desperation, all the fear that had driven them to break up from various hells-on- earth in order to make their way to freedom. They had been so close to their goal when the ship hit a reef and the Greek sailors had left in lifeboats, leaving the people in the cargo hold to save themselves.

Europe let us down before we even arrived, she thought. i will never forget that, whatever happens to me in the future. She didn’t know how many people had drowned, nor would she ever find out. The cries for help still pulsated like a pain in her head. at first she had been surrounded by these cries, then one by one they had fallen silent. when she hit land she had praised her luck. She had survived; she had arrived. But for what? She had quickly tried to forget her dreams. Nothing had turned out as she had imagined.

A harsh spotlight had picked her out as she lay on the cold and wet Spanish beach. The dogs had run up to her and then the soldiers surrounded her with their shiny weapons. She had survived. But that was all. afterwards she had been placed in the refugee camp with its barracks and tents, leaky showers and dirty toilets. on the other side of the wire fence she could see the ocean that had released her, but nothing else, none of the future she had imagined.

The people in the refugee camp, so varied in their language, dress and terrible experiences – imparted through a look or sometimes words – had only this in common: nothing to look forward to. Some had been there for many years. No country was willing to admit them and all of their energies were devoted to avoiding being sent back. one day, as she had been waiting in line for her daily rations, she spoke with a young man from iran – or was it iraq? it was often hard to know where people came from since they invariably lied about it in the hope that it would make their applications for asylum more attractive. he said that the camp was simply a large death chamber, a holding place where the clock ticked on relentlessly towards death. She had immediately understood what he meant but tried to ignore the thought.

His eyes had been full of sorrow. They surprised her. Since she had grown to be a woman all she had seen in men’s eyes was a kind of hunger. But this thin man seemed not to have noticed her beauty nor her smile. This had frightened her. She could not stand the thought that men did not immediately desire her, nor that the long and desperate flight had been for nothing. She, like all the others who had been caught, lived in the hope that her ordeal would one day be over. Through some miracle someone would one day appear before her with a paper in his hand and a smile on his lips and say: welcome.

In order not to drive herself insane she had to be very patient. She understood that. and patience could only arise if she did not allow herself any expectations. Sometimes people in the camp committed suicide, or at least made serious attempts. They were the ones who were not strong enough to stifle their own expec- tations and the burden of thinking that their dreams would one day be realised finally overcame them.

Therefore, every morning when she woke up, she told herself that the best she could do was to rid herself of hope. That and never mentioning her true country of origin. The camp was always a hotbed of rumours about which countries offered the best chances for asylum applicants. it was as if the camp were a marketplace of countries where the possibilities for entry were recorded on a kind of stock market. No investments were ever long-lasting or secure.

A short while after she arrived, Bangladesh had been highest on the list. For some reason that they never understood, Germany was granting immediate asylum to all people who could prove that they came from Bangladesh. during an intense few days people of all complexions and appearances waited in line in front of the exhausted Spanish bureaucrats and argued with great fervour that they had suddenly realised they were from Bangladesh. in this way at least fourteen Chinese refugees from the hunan province made their way to Germany. a few days later Germany ‘closed’ Bangladesh, as they said in the camp. after three days of uncertainty a rumour was started that France was prepared to take a certain quota of Kurds.

She had been unsuccessful in her attempts to research where the Kurds actually came from or what they looked like. Nonetheless she stood in line with the others and when she at last stood in front of a red-eyed clerk with the name tag ‘Fernando’ she smiled her sweetest smile. Fernando simply shook his head.

‘Tell me what colour you are,’ he said.

She immediately sensed danger, but she had to say something. The Spanish didn’t like people who didn’t answer their questions. a lie was better than silence.

‘You are black,’ Fernando said in reply to his own question. ‘There are no black Kurds. Kurds look like me, not you.’

‘There are always exceptions. My father was not a Kurd, but my mother was.’

Fernando’s eyes seemed only to redden. She continued to smile. it was her strongest weapon, it always had been.

‘And what was your father doing in Kurdistan?’


Fernando threw his pen down in triumph.

‘Ha! There is no Kurdistan. at least not in any official capacity. That is exactly the reason that Kurds are fleeing their country.’

'How can they leave a country that doesn’t exist?’

But Fernando lost patience with her. he waved her away.

‘i should report the fact that you have been lying,’ he said.

‘I’m not lying.’

She thought she could suddenly see a spark of interest in his eyes.

‘You are speaking the truth?’

‘Kurds don’t lie.’

The spark in Fernando’s eyes died away.

‘Go,’ he said. ‘it is the best thing you can do. what is your name?’

She decided in that moment to give herself an entirely new name. She looked quickly around the room and her gaze fell on the teacup on Fernando’s table.

‘Tea-Bag,’ she replied.



‘is that a Kurdish name?’

‘My mother liked english names.’

‘Is Tea-Bag even a name?’

‘it must be since that is what she called me.’

Fernando sighed and dismissed her with a tired wave. She left the room and did not let the smile leave her face until she was out in the yard and had found a place by the fence where she could be alone.

Meet the Author

Henning Mankell’s novels have been translated into forty languages and have sold more than forty million copies worldwide. He is the first winner of the Ripper Award (the new European prize for crime fiction) and has received the Glass Key and Golden Dagger Awards. He is also the winner of the German Tolerance Prize and has been nominated three times for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His Kurt Wallander mysteries have been adapted into a PBS television series starring Sir Kenneth Branagh. Mankell divides his time between Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique.

Brief Biography

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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The Shadow Girls: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
tedfeit0 More than 1 year ago
Henning Mankell is widely known for his Kurt Wallender crime series, as well as for his deep social conscience. In his various novels and other works, he has exhibited his concerns on a wide assortment of such issues. In this novel, he turns his attention to the plight of immigrants seeking permanent asylum in Sweden. The protagonist seems to be a writer of obscure poetry, Jesper Humlin, whose books account for little sales. His publisher provides a light touch to the book, insisting he write a crime novel which would sell many more copies. Of course, he refuses. Instead, Humlin becomes involved with three immigrant girls, two of whom are undocumented. Listening to them tell their stories, he learns of their attempts to leave their homeland and sneak into Sweden. As a result, he determines to write a book about them. This then is the thrust of “The Shadow Girls.” It is a dry polemic. But more importantly, the three girls who relate their tales in italicized segments use language that seemed to this reader as not likely available to uneducated persons. Clearly, it is the voice of the author and might as well be non-fiction. The novel’s purpose is laudable, especially in view of the current efforts to do something about immigration policy in the United States. But it really is not a piece of fiction. The only reason to consider recommending it is that it is written by Henning Mankell.
BonnieMcCune More than 1 year ago
Mankell is often categorized as a crime writer, but this novel, although it contains some undocumented, and thus illegal, visitors in Sweden, is primarily about the human condition.  Protagonist Jesper Humlin is writer of poetry, and poets communicate, right? Wrong.  Humlin and every other character fail to convey their thoughts and feelings, understandable when some are non-native Swedish speakers, bewildering when his mother, publisher, stock broker, and other friends also seem to be talking only to themselves. Faced with the challenge of conveying the appalling stories of the three women, or helping them to do so, Humlin finally turns from poetry to narration.  And as Humlin wanders from place to place seeking solutions on behalf of the women, rather like Diogenes searching for an honest man, the author manages to bring humor to the situation.  Mankell exposes readers to a side of society becoming common across the globe, although many are unaware of it. This is a first-rate novel with no conditions or exceptions.
bifmozart65 More than 1 year ago
would have been better with less narrative about the fictional author and more about the 3 refugee women.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everybody needs to escape. Everybody buys crime novels. Reality and poetry aren't popular because people don't want to be reminded of what the world really is. So, escapust crime novels make people happy, and publishers rich... A sort of has-been esoteric Swedish poet wakes up from his esoteric life when he is confronted with major changes in his world when he meets three girls who escape from their lives in war-torn countries, and even their "new lives". They ned to tell their stories. Question is, to who?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Can i be the judge? If not can i be the co judge?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cll me Star. I wrote The Other-World. P.S. i read your stories an i LOVED them
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Should i go ahead and write a short story?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am hosting a writing contest at 'write right now' results 1-3.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oh, yes that one! I couldnt see the chapter. I liked the one at clash res two. I forgot the name though.... it was by Glimmer...