Review: The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell

I have my favourite book fairy to thank for sending me this book which I read this week in readiness for discussion at my face to face book club on Sunday.

This has to be the most schizophrenic book I’ve read all year.

On one side of the scale there is storytelling at a genius level. It kept me gripped from its hauntingly written opening sequences, in which a brutal massacre in a small Swedish town is discovered, through several dips into the history of pre-communist China and the construction of the US railways using slave labour, through to vignettes in modern China, Zimbabwe and London. I read the entire thing in two sittings and was totally absorbed for the duration primarily because I never, once, knew what would happen next.

There are also some truly compelling female characters. Swedish Judge Birgitta Roslin, a married woman in her 60’s who is grappling with a troubled marriage and the fact her life hasn’t panned out as she imagined it would when she was a radical student, discovers she is distantly connected to one of the couples murdered in the massacre. Becoming somewhat obsessed with the case and finding herself with time on her hands she travels to the scene of the crime, becomes a thorn in the side of local police and uncovers the lone piece evidence left by the killer (which the police conveniently ignore). Through a circuitous series of plot shenanigans Roslin meets up with an even more intriguing woman, Hong Qiu, who is something vague but high-up in Chinese officialdom. She is dealing with even bigger personal dilemmas than Roslin, not the least of which is what to do about her corrupt and probably criminal brother, and is undergoing something of a crisis of conscience of her own. The Swedish policewoman in charge of the murder investigation, Vivi Sundberg, is not drawn in quite as much depth and although she offers glimmers of interest I thought she ended up being a bit forgotten among the other powerful women in this story.

In several other senses though the book is the literary equivalent of a basket case.

The writing style, or perhaps the translation, is choppy and awkward at times. There are jarring changes of storytelling pace, unnecessary detail and repetition in parts and more clichés than I would expect. Or want. The historical portions in particular appear to have been crafted for their depressive instructiveness ahead of their narrative drive.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot problems without giving away things readers have the right to discover for themselves so I will simply say the main plot is entirely unbelievable. Seriously, there are holes you could drive a fleet of trucks through and coincidences abound in precisely the way that does not happen. Not to mention the boat load of unexplained loose ends and the fact that the men are all caricatures of real people.

Most annoyingly for me though is the didactic display of politics. At times the political overtones of the book do make for thought-provoking reading, such as when considering the implications of a relationship between China and impoverished African countries of the kind Manekll’s fictional (or not?) Chinese leadership proposes. But too often this is achieved via dull and inappropriate lecturing rather than as seamless parts of the narrative.

I am also, for the record, more than a little tired of hearing that all capitalists are evil in human form.

On balance though I’ve decided there is more to admire than disparage in The Man From Beijing. It is an ambitious project that doesn’t always succeed but it did keep me up for two nights running and it did make me think about the world in ways I hadn’t previously considered. Even more importantly, as someone who has whined at length about formulaic plots I applaud any effort to produce something different from the norm.  In the end, I would rather read a novel that tries to do too much and fails partially than one which doesn’t try at all.

If you are looking for traditional crime fiction of the procedural or whodunnit style then this is not the book for you. But if you’re looking for something that explores small human issues such as the nature of obsession, the angst of ageing and the lengths a person will, and will not, go to for their family alongside broad issues of humanity like colonialism (past and present) the decay of the modern justice system and the future of the global economy then I’d suggest you suspend your disbelief and give the book a go. At the very least it’ll make you think.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4/5

Translator Laurie Thompson;  Publisher Harvill Secker [2010]; ISBN
1846552575; Length 368 pages

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Man From Beijing has been reviewed at a host of spots including Euro Crime and Mysteries in Paradise

8 thoughts on “Review: The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this thoughtful and very helpful review. I admire the way you really give such helpful detail on what worked and what didn’t for you – such an informative discussion on the book. I agree that a book’s a lot more interesting when the author takes a risk than when the author takes no risks at all and the book offers nothing new.

  2. As always you’ve hit the mark, Bernadette. An excellent and thoughtful review. I always feel somewhat uncomfortable criticising someone of Mankell’s stature, despite noticeable weaknesses, but you have balanced the strengths and weaknesses in the book. Thanks.

  3. I liked this book a lot for many reasons. It made me think, it challenged me to think about what is happening in China today, what direction is the country going both internally and externally. I liked the strong women characters and the past history.
    Mankell does live one-half time in Mozambique where he has donated funds and time to many noble projects for children and others. It is very much his concern what has happened to Africa in the past at the hands of the West and what is happening now and what is China’s role in this. I couldn’t put it down and stayed up nights to finish it.

  4. What a great review, Bernadette. When you wrote “schizophrenic” at the start, I thought “that’s it!” about this book. However, I think my “schizophrenia” thoughts were a bit different, in that I thought some aspects were compelling and sophisticated (the Swedish bits) whereas the historical US and old China bits just seemed to me like clunky soap opera. I loved the women characters (the judge, the cop and the chinese policy woman) but like you found the crime plot silly. For me, the book worked because although I agree about the political lectures and them being somewhat ham-fisted, I am with Kathy in appreciating the sincerity of their origins – the author is deeply embedded in Africa. I remember this aspect in at least one of the Wallender novels (to the book’s detriment). On balance, I really liked the book, because of its serious intent and for the parts of it that were really good (for me, the Swedish and modern Chinese sections). And I liked its ambition, even if it did not always succeed. Mankell is not coasting on his reputation, far from it.
    Thanks, again, for a great review!

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