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A Treacherous Paradise is an unlikely book. Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer best known for the Wallander series of detective stories. He split is time between Sweden and Mozambique; another Swede who traveled there told Mankell that at some point in the late nineteenth or early 20th century, a Swedish woman not only owned one of the largest brothels in what is now Maputo, she was also the largest taxpayer in town. She shows up in the tax rolls, but no other information has survived.

And thus, the idea for A Treacherous Paradise came to be. It is a fictional story that does not involve any hard-bitten, opera-loving detectives dealing with human trafficking rings based in the Baltics.  Instead, Hanna Renstrom was born in a remote town in northern Sweden, finds work in the coastal town of Sundsvall (and learns Portuguese in an incredulous plot line), and boards a ship to Australia. She is married and widowed before the ship stops in Mozambique, where she gets off and decides to stay.

Our heroine ends up at a brothel, first as a guest (she thinks she is checking into a hotel), then as the wife of the owner. When her husband dies, she becomes the owner. The story combines the twin patriarchal institutions of colonialism and the sex trade to help us see what life was like in 1900 in Mozambique.

It’s a fascinating and strange story.

Mozambique was a Portuguese colony for about 500 years until it became independent in 1975. It was one of the poorest countries in the world then; it’s still quite poor (ranked 218 out of 230 in the CIA World Factbook). The economy relies on subsistence agriculture, which is especially difficult given the country’s poor water supplies and its very young population. (About two-thirds of Mozambique’s population is younger than 24, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is among the highest in the world.)

And yet, there is good news. The country is stable politically, and the government has been able to restructure or eliminate much of its external debt. It has aluminum resources and abundant hydroelectric power. If the population can be stabilized, maybe good things can happen here. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?