Who do we ever really know other than ourselves? Even then, the lies we tell ourselves to create an exterior façade that aligns with our social and ideological strata may confuse the truth or what we’ve manufactured to be the truth. In other words, no one is ever really who they seem and, within the context of fiction delivered in the first person, we, like those characters around the primary voice, are only allowed to see what the narrator wants us to.

Fredrik Welin, 70-year-old disgraced doctor and narrator of Henning Mankell’s After the Fire, is just such a narrator. He’s not wholly unreliable, rather he offers up details of his life piecemeal in the wake of a devastating house fire that takes with it all of the worldly possessions accumulated throughout the course of a life. With all of the physical goods that came to define his success and family history on an island within an archipelago in southern Sweden, he is forced to confront himself without the buffer of things. Instead, any trace of his existence now exists solely within his memories and the impressions others have formulated over the years.

This becomes problematic for Welin as he, like the majority of the characters populating Mankell’s narrative, is rather curt in his conversations. More often than not, the novel’s dialogue amounts to little more than talk of the weather, local gossip and terse pleasantries. Given access to his inner monologue as though written out chronologically in the form of a journal or diary entry, we move through the world in real time with Welin. Following the devastating fire, he’s forced to rebuild his life from the ground up.

Left with little more than an old caravan and a dilapidated tent in which to live, Welin moves through his days in a haze of self-analysis and disgust with modern society. His only human contact is Jansson, the former mail carrier for the whole archipelago, assorted townsfolk and a journalist named Lisa Modin, the only character whose full name is used. This self-imposed isolation is shattered as he becomes the primary suspect in the arson investigation surrounding the loss of his house.

Adding to this small ensemble is his constantly disappearing, firebrand 40-year-old daughter – someone he met a mere 10 years prior, introduced by the girl’s mother in a somewhat convoluted recollection that Welin never fully reveals. Their relationship is built on mutual misunderstanding of the other’s very existence, and throughout the course of the novel it’s rebuilt and strengthened as each slowly lets down their respective guard.

Interstitial scenes are designed to show Welin’s isolation as well as a constant stream of personal reminiscences that put forth a more coherent picture of his character. However, the details may not always be what they are made out to be; throughout his narration he mentions the ease with which he is able to lie and fabricate.

Such fabrication is the overarching theme of After the Fire, with Mankell none too subtly hammering the idea home: “There is always something unexpected within those we meet, those we think we have got to know,” Welin remarks early on. Later he observes, “Trusting what a person says is always a risk. The truth is always provisional, while lies are often solid.” And if these weren’t on-the-nose enough, Welin, conversing with Jansson near the novel’s so-obvious-it’s-almost-painful resolution of the arson investigation, remarks, “What do we really know about people?…What do you know about me? What do I know about you?” While the mystery subplot is not meant to be strong enough to carry the story, it’s still a little too convenient.

But it’s a small complaint in an otherwise interesting look into the mind of a Swedish septuagenarian attempting to deal with the world in which he finds himself. There are not-so-subtle themes of racism and xenophobia running throughout; one character’s family history includes a prominent Nazi officer, while the archipelago community casts blame for the fires on the foreign elements having emigrated to Sweden. Even Welin, despite his own self-righteousness, constantly remarks on the shoddy quality of Chinese products and identifies those he encounters by the color of their skin and suspected ethnic origin. This comes back to haunt him when he meets his daughter’s partner after a trip to Paris to free her from prison – it’s one of a handful of vignettes that find Welin away from his beloved island and isolation and moving within the world.

There are a number of ideas rumbling around in Mankell’s novel, so much so that it tends to drag down the forward momentum of the narrative. Given Welin’s oblivious misanthropy, much of the text reads as black comedy. This, coupled with overwhelming pessimism, makes for a handful of laugh-out-loud moments (possibly unintentional) that make the reader wish for a break from Welin just as he pines for an escape from his own life through an imagined love affair. As bleak and isolating as the archipelago’s landscape, After the Fire is a punishing look at life, death and just how little we ever know about the people in our lives.

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