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Book Name: Depths

Author: Henning Mankell

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Overall Rating: (3.64/5) View all reviews (total 14 reviews)

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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.--This text refers to theHardcoveredition.


Sinking to the depths of madness

by Amazon Customer

Translated from Swedish, the novel DEPTHS received acclaim internationally. Written by Henning Mankell, an author of extensive creative literature, this latest is set in the icy Baltic between 1914 and 1916, when the Swedes have sent their navy to remeasure the depths of the sea channels. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is assigned the job to take depth soundings in the sea of the Swedish archipelago. The story takes a twist from normalcy when on one of the skerries (rock islands), he is attracted to a female recluse even though he already has a wife in Stockholm. The hydrographic engineer tries in vain to separate the two women, who survive masterfully. The tragedy is in the mental breakdown of Tobiasson-Svartman.The 206 chapters are written like a ship's log with essential brevity in its clear prose. Irony is found in the changing circumstances of the characters, a similarity with the moving silt on the sea bottom. At times the opacity of the white fog provides protection from discovery. Tobiasson-Svartman can fascinate, becalm, and frighten the reader as the mood overtakes him. He pushes a character to extend the borders of what he/she can do and believe.

Part Ingmar Bergman, part Alfred Hitchcock --- masters of the symbolic, the noir-ish and the macabre

by Bookreporter

I think of films, not novels, when trying to describe DEPTHS: It's part Ingmar Bergman, part Alfred Hitchcock --- masters of the symbolic, the noir-ish and the macabre --- with maybe a dash of Ripley's Game thrown in. However, Ripley --- in the film and the Patricia Highsmith novel on which it's based --- is clearly a psychopath; the suspense is in seeing how long and how successfully he can pass for normal. In contrast, the protagonist of DEPTHS, a naval officer by the name of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, initially appears sane, albeit terrifically repressed.Sure, he has issues: a father complex (Tobiasson is his mother's name, inserted for protective purposes: "His father was dead now, but dead people can also be a threat"); a highly ritualized marriage to Kristina Tacker, a woman who mysteriously has retained her maiden name; and seriously weird dreams (horses being whipped?), but he seems more control freak than madman.When we first encounter him, it is wartime, 1914, and he is engaged in a covert mission to the Baltic Sea --- charting the depths of certain sea routes used by the Swedish navy to make sure ships won't run aground. His profession has to do with measurement, and he seems to conduct his life and manage his psyche with the same pitiless precision. Then disturbing things start happening. A seaman falls ill with appendicitis and dies before he can reach a hospital; the body of a German soldier is found floating in the ocean (although Sweden has remained neutral, Russian and German ships are battling not far away); and a captain drops dead of a heart attack.Most fatally, Tobiasson-Svartman rows to Halsskär, an obscure and apparently unoccupied island near his ship's anchorage, and there he discovers a young woman named Sara Fredrika --- a widow living in unimaginable isolation --- and conceives a desperate passion for her. Sara Fredrika is completely unlike Kristina Tacker, with her cool beauty and fragile china animals (the two women are clearly conceived as opposites). She is dirty and smells; in her primitivism she is irresistible.Tobiasson-Svartman is hooked. He returns home to Stockholm, where his wife tells him she is pregnant, but he cannot stay away from Halsskär and Sara Fredrika. In his desperation to return to the island undetected, he even walks over the frozen sea (like many scenes in DEPTHS, this journey is strikingly and memorably cinematic). Helpless in his obsession, he squanders his savings, deceives his wife and employer, and finally commits murder; as his double life unravels, we begin to see that he is not just the victim of an inappropriate lust --- he is quite insane. It all ends just about as badly as one can imagine.The wildness of this gothic tale is echoed in the oceanic setting --- more than a setting, actually, for in Tobiasson-Svartman's fevered mind nature is treacherously alive (rocks turning into beasts; the sea "keeping watch on him, like a sharp-eyed animal"), and Mankell is constantly making parallels between the unconscious mind and the fathomless sea ("He was mapping navigable channels so that other people would be able to travel in safety, but the charts he was mapping for himself led to chaos." And again: "He had measured the depth of the sea...but he had not succeeded in coordinating his discoveries with the navigable channels inside himself.").I must confess that this relentless, heavy-handed symbolism got me down after a while (as did the oddly brief chapters, some as short as a single sentence). Perhaps it is a European style of novel that doesn't appeal to me, or maybe the fault of any literature in translation, but despite its haunting seascape the book seemed to me pretentious and arty rather than profound.It's not that I insist on Mankell sticking to the known territory of his mystery novels. He is allowed to experiment. But here, it seems to me, his usually sure touch has deserted him. In his thrillers, as in DEPTHS, the realm of the abnormal and disturbing (in the form of murder) is juxtaposed with matter-of-fact life and daily routine. But Mankell's finest creation, the police inspector Wallander --- instead of being consumed by the craziness of his job --- remains magnificently human and absolutely sane. He is flawed, vulnerable, overweight, lonely, sometimes depressed, not that good at being a parent, husband or lover --- but he is magnificent at solving murders.I wish Mankell had dispatched Wallander on his own secret mission to save DEPTHS from turning into a chilly intellectual conceit. With him tracking Tobiasson-Svartman, the book might have had a pulse.--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman

The deserved ruination of a despicable human

by Cory D. Slipman

Henning Mankell uses a distinctly different writing style in his latest translated novel "Depths", compared to his hugely popular Kurt Wallander series. Rather than using the descriptive style prevalent in his police procedurals, "Depths" is written concisely with a proponderence of chapters typified by their brevity. Whereas most of his previous offerings are presented in a largely somber manner, "Depths" is a downright depressing novel.Mankell's novel commences with a woman, Kristina Tacker having escaped from a mental institution. He goes on to describe the circumstances that put her in her present predicament. Her husband, main character Lars Tobiasson-Svartman was a Swedish naval commander and venerable hydrographic engineer. At the onset of World War One he was commissioned to sound the depths of navigable waterways around the Stockholm archipelago, to update sea charts. This would allow safer and more rapid transit of Swedish ships during the tumultuous wartimes.Svartman while on his secret mission discovers a woman living by herself on a small rocky island of Halsskar and becomes obsessed with her. He formulates a series of lies and deceptions to his wife, comrades and superiors that are fabricated to enable him to shirk his duties as both a commander and a husband to be with this woman, Sara Fredricka.Gradually his whole essence sinks to the level of depravity as lies lead to violence and murder. While his pregnant wife sits in their Stockholm flat convinced that Svartman is on a clandestine mission, he is leading a double life on Halsskar.Eventually he sinks into an abyss from which he cannot extricate himself as "Depths" plays out like a Swedish Shakespearean tragedy. All that the deplorable Svartman touches becomes marked for catastrophe.In the Wallander series, Mankell's protagonist is empathetic whereas main character Lars Svartman evolves into a villainous blackguard for whom there can by no sympathy or acceptance.


by Daniel A. Scott "Just honest!"

This book was cold and bland. It never drew me in and it wasn't all that entertaining either. The only reason I finished it is because I didn't have anything else to read at the moment. I hope this isn't typical of Mankell, I'll be hard pressed to read another book by him.

Shadows With Circulatory Systems

by Daniel Myers

Yet another dark, Scandinavian novel here; this one set in the wilds of the WWI Baltic Sea. The plot, such as is it, follows hydrographer Lars whose declared intention is to find a depth that can't be plumbed, through a liminal world of shifting seas and conflicting tides into a world of madness. But it's not so much the character Lars on which one focuses, or the two women in his life, but the liminal seascape/dreamscape of the world he inhabits. About fifty pages into the over 400 page novel, I began to ask myself what was dream and what was waking cognition here. For Lars, as he spirals into greater depths, greater confusions, "It seemed to him that he was living in many different worlds at the same time. Each one of them was equally true."Ultimately, this book is quite disturbing and brings to the surface, as it were, several philosophical questions, such as this one contemplated by Plato and Plotinus:"`Children would no doubt like to choose their parents,' she said. `Maybe they do, did we but know it.'"Eventually, in these wild Baltic waters, all waking, human cognition dissolves, all the artificial constructs we create in order to identify loved ones, to name them, to fix them in place - loved ones who, after all, are in the constant process of changing into someone else - sink into the unknown. As Lars's wife says, on the verge of clinical madness:"I have realised that I am married to a man who doesn't exist, a shadow with a circulatory system and a brain that is nothing more than an invention, a figment of the imagination."I'm only giving the book 4 starts because the staccato minimalist prose is a bit off-putting for my taste. But this book is still one to be recommended by all serious readers who realise that, in the vast deeps of this cosmos, we may well be nothing more than shadows with circulatory systems who briefly haunt it.

Wow - not a great book.

by Digital Rights

Message to writers: 20 pages of great psychological turmoil do not make up for 300 pages of tedious build up, particularly after an initial short chapter that raises expectations. It's best to not get off to a good start when the middle 95% disappoints.I've read 2 previous Mankell novels; the exquisite "Italian Shoes" and the very interesting "The Eye of the Leopard". In those books there is much depth (a sad unintended pun). There there are characters with issues that drive action and explain purpose. Here that is absent. Without better reasons there is less connection to characters and reason to invest in them. Even Mankell's strength in portraying nature and the elements are not as apparent here. Instead we are left with weather updates that vary between just above and below freezing.Mankell seems off his game. The writing is pedestrian. The hints of a bigger story left the ending somewhat flat. The metaphors are obvious and repetitive. Three stars for finishing it.Thankfully he's written some great books and will revisit in the future.

An exquisite novel of depth and suspense


The novel opens with the harrowing scene of a woman called Kristina Tacker as she escapes from a psychiatric asylum. She vaguely remembers that her husband had the rank of Commander in the Swedish army and that he was a hydrographical survey engineer. At this moment, in 1937, Kristina Tacker is fifty-seven and it is twelve years since she has uttered her last word.The reader is immediately drawn into the suspense created by this opening as he follows the story of the main character, Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, a man obsessed by the depths of the sea and torn between two women, Sara Frederika and his wife Kristina Tacker. We follow his destiny at the beginning of World War I as he slowly loses his grip on his surroundings and becomes entangled in a web of lies and crimes which inexorably leads to his downfall. He ends up by living in a world entirely created by lies. Indeed he becomes an impostor; an impostor lives a life but the deceit involved lives a different life. It is the tragic fate of a man whose life has always been based on lunatic ideas and who has built his existence on distances and depths instead of seeking closeness.

Watch this gripping psychological collapse

by J. L. Rubenking

Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is a naval officer assigned to sound the depths of Swedish channels as the country prepares for World War in 1914. He is enveloped in fog, literally and metaphorically, as he cannot establish any real human rapport on board, and feels distanced from his wife back home in Stockholm, even though he believes he loves her and needs her to anchor him to the world. In his explorations, Lars comes upon a woman living a secluded life on an otherwise uninhabited, dismal island and he feels himself drawn to her sexually. His obsession with Sara overtakes all aspects of his life, and he finds himself changing in unexpected (or maybe not) ways. He lies, commits murder, attacks his father-in-law and manages to impregnate both his wife and Sara. This book builds slowly and then doesn't let go as we watch Lars spiral out of control. The gloom of the sea is prevalent and pervades the deterioration of Lars' personality - the question raised is existential: how many aspects of Lars are his `real' personalities? Are we all just a decision away from slipping into a moral and mental morass?

First draft

by John Coffey

This one reads really like an outline for a movie screenplay and could have done with better editing to excise the pretentious bits; it's better than the pedestrian Wallander novels but completely devoid of any humour or levity.It's still, oddly, very gripping. It's tantalising to imagine what a really great writer, rather than a merely good one like Mankell, could do with the plot.

Scary descent into pre-existing madness

by P. A. Doornbos

This haunting psychological novel has 10 big and 206 smaller chapters. It shows that Henning Mankell (HM) masters other genres beyond crime novels or his Wallander series. It is also a historical novel shedding light on Sweden's recent past of deep poverty and gross inequality, where beating domestic staff, lower ranks in the armed forces, or one's own children was considered normal. But I hasten to add that this occurred everywhere else. This novel begins in 1937 when a speechless inmate escapes from an asylum. But she is soon found...The narrative switches to 1914 and 1915 and stays there. The woman in question is the rich-born wife of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman (LTS), a Navy captain specialized in depth measurements along Sweden's complex east coast. His expertise is highly valued when the Great War breaks out: neutral Sweden urgently needs to update its old depth maps, some from the 1840s, to take account of increased tonnages of merchant and navy vessels, and create new safe and secret sailing routes.From small chapter 3, HM depicts his main character LTS in words foreshadowing doom. Expert as he is in measuring depths between waterline and seabed, he lives in fear of his own depths of despair about his upbringing, his loveless marriage, his colleagues, his life tomorrow. Expert as he is also in guestimating horizontal distance, he has devoted a lifetime in keeping people at a distance. No love or intimacy, no friendship, no trust. What emerges is a portrait of a dissembling man as black as his last name. With no chance of remission, it is a two-year long dream-ridden descent into lies, murder, lies and more lies...HM expertly portrays LTS and the two women in his life, each bearing him a daughter called Laura. So are his writings of LTS' work routines and of winter on Sweden's many tiny islands and islets in the ice-covered Baltic Sea.

Very good

by Professor Joseph L. McCauley "Joseph L. McCauley"

I read this Mankell several years ago and found it to be very good. The tale is believable, centering on the 'coming out' of a sort of peeping Tom quasi psychopath who suffered under his father. It's not a Wallender mystery, and it isn't a great book but it's a very good one. One also gets the right picture of the Baltic Sea, it's not very deep!If you haven't read Firewall and Return of the Dancing Master, then do. I don't recall if I reviewed them but they're exceptional among the Mankell (and all) mystery books.This review was based on the original Swedish 'Djup', the only Mankell I've struggled through in the original language (the Norwegian translations are certainly no worse than second best, and the German translations are also very good).

I am amazed that this book got published

by Roger Angle

Unbelievably slow and pointless. I managed to wade through to Page 56, and that was a slog.This book is an exercise in minimalism, I guess. I have friends who are loving some of Mankell's mystery/thrillers. But this is not one of them. I am amazed that this book got published. There are hints of a story here, but the story does not materialize in the first 56 pages. If not then, when? I'd say this book is self-indulgent. It's like seeing shapes through the fog and then following them and finding another shape and another, without being able to tell what they are. I finally gave up.

A Frozen Archipelago

by Roger Brunyate "reader/writer/musician"

Much of this story is set in and among the small barren islands of the Östergötland archipelago in the Baltic off the East coast of Sweden. And the novel suits the setting, bleak and emotionally icebound, but with a curious fascination that will not let you stop reading. It is written like an archipelago too, in very short chapters (206 in 403 pages), some little more than a paragraph, with a lot of white space between them. The style is unadorned and declarative; even emotional matters are stated flatly, as facts of the moment, with little sense of movement through time. But time does inch forward between one brief chapter and the next, almost imperceptibly, like a slow drip of water, gradually eroding any sense of normality and order.Mankell has always written simply and clearly; I enjoy his Inspector Wallander mysteries (especiallyTHE FIFTH WOMAN) for their combination of straightforward storytelling and psychological insight, set within a realistic portrayal of contemporary Swedish life. I know I will read others in the series with pleasure, but DEPTHS is completely different. Instead of the concrete present, it takes place in an uncertain past, at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war when Sweden's neutrality was still in doubt. Instead of being rooted in cities and towns on dry land, it takes place mostly at sea, on ships or tiny rocky islands. Instead of opening to a rich social world of human beings interacting with one another, it gradually closes in to the mind of one man, obsessive, misanthropic, ultimately mad, as he gradually loses all normal contact with his fellow human beings.The book begins in madness, a woman escaping from a mental hospital. She is soon recaptured, and we flash back to 1914 to meet her husband, Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, sane, upright, and well respected. A Swedish naval officer, he is charged with making depth soundings that will establish secret channels between offshore islands for naval vessels to use in case of war. Svartman pursues his work with obsessive professionalism; if there are strange things about him, we assume they have to do with details of his secret mission which will be revealed in due course. Only gradually do we see his obsession as part of his character, and secretiveness as his very essence. By the time he encounters a woman living alone on one of the islands, and gets drawn into a double life of secrets upon secrets, his downward spiral becomes inevitable. The poor woman of the prologue may have lost her reason, but the cause of her madness lies elsewhere.Imagine a Dostoyevsky on downers, cooler, less complex, but with the same dogged pursuit of his protagonist as he declines into psychosis. I hated this book, but have to admire Mankell's power as a writer. Even in translation, the man is good!

Seafarer's journey finds craggy shore of madness

by Yasmin H. McEwen "Wisdom falls in between the...

Don't forget your scarf as you head into icy waters with a protagonist hell bent on taking the whole ship down.What works so well with this novel is the psychotic breakdown of events as told by the narrator. The way he mesmerizes the reader with his illogical psychopathy - - - one simply cannot believe that he is going to do what he does; and this is the essence of the story, that he just keeps going one step further into dreaded villanous territory; every description including the weather notations, almost seem to advance like blankets of ice hell bent on covering every crime he commits. I kept waiting for him to slip up and really get it; but he doesn't, and that's the gristle of the novel. The writing is so pure it is as of standing on the bow of a ship forging through icy water; pure grit. Mankell is in fine form, and no one can touch him. An absolute stunner of a novel.

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