Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review of John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let The Right One In




I borrowed "Let the Right One In" from my local library. Whilst checking the book out, the librarian commented that it was among the best books he had read for a while.That sounded promising. Glancing over the book cover and the usual snippets of praise that are taken from newspaper reviews, I noticed that one reviewer likened Lindqvist's style of writing to Stephen King's. Even better, I thought, and started reading on the bus home.

Prior to reading, I did have a vague idea what the story was about. In short, a "gritty" novel on vampires set in Sweden. (Gritty - that's the critics' favourite adjective when passing their verdicts on Scandinavian literature. Hence, it had to be included somewhere in this review.)

I was soon to find out that this is only half the story. Lindqvist's novel is as much a modern vampire tale as it is a story about bullying, social isolation, social injustice and sexual exploitation. All this is set against the backdrop of Sweden in the 1980s - the very country, which  is usually presented to the rest of Europe as the shining beacon of consensus democracy with broad societal approval for its welfare state and all things social democratic. Compared to this, the dark atmosphere of Stockholm's anonymous suburbia of sink estates, broken homes, teenage violence, substance abuse, petty crime and sexual deviancy (the book is teaming with peadohiles) in Lindqvist's tale might come as a bit of a shock.


At the beginning of the story we meet Oskar - a perpetual outsider, who is bullied at school and who in turn harbours dark fantasies about the various ways, in which he would like to inflict revenge on his assailants. He collects newspaper articles on serial killers in a scrapbook, lives with his mother, a single parent, in one of the apartments on the estate, regularly wets himself out of fear of his bullies, commits petty theft and shows signs of suffering from an eating disorder. Very early on, it becomes clear that Oskar has virtually no one he can confide in - until he meets Eli, this is.

At first, Oskar assumes that Eli is just another girl living on the estate, but admits to himself that certain things about Eli are rather strange. He only ever sees her at night and even though the temperatures are dropping sharply at the onset of the Swedish winter, Eli is skimpily dressed and doesn't even seem to feel the cold. There is also a rather pungent smell about her and following their first encounter, Oskar thinks that she looks utterly unhealthy. Assuming that the person sharing the apartment with Eli is her father, he blames parental neglicence for Eli's wayward appearance. Despite all these oddities, Oskar is intrigued by Eli and the two begin to meet up regularly in a playground just outside their homes - much to the dismay of Oskar's mother and Hakkan, Eli's middle - aged "housemate". What Oskar doesn't know, however, is that Eli is a two hundred year- old vampire in the guise of a twelve year - old, and that she shares her apartment with a paedophile ex - teacher, who goes on occasional killing sprees for his "beloved" Eli, both to provide her with much needed nutrition and to potentially earn her affection in bedroom. The ensuing story is part vampire tale, part thriller and a story about the quirky friendship between Eli and Oskar.

I was surprised when I saw that the publishers of "Let The Right One In" in Germany, where the book's title is "So Finster die Nacht" (roughly translated: The Night So Dark), have chosen to market the story as a thriller.  Lindqvist has written a modern vampire tale that also contains elements of a thriller, but it is primarily a vampire horror. 

Despite or  perhaps because of the recent hype around this  genre, vampires are not everyone's cup of tea. Unlike the creations of other authors in the field, Lindqvist's vampires are not at all suave, good - looking or attractive. If you are looking for another Edward, don't read Lindqvist. Lindqvist's vampires are troubled creatures, haunted by their existence and their past as well as deeply constrained by their way of life. This is true for Hakkan, who chooses to be turned into a vampire, and Virginia, who becomes infected, as well as Eli, who has been living as a vampire for two hundred years. Lindqvist's vampires are deeply rooted in the grim reality of the overall setting created by the author.

What comes with the territory of any vampire novel are the rules the author imposes on his vampires. Lindqvist's vampires are physically strong, yet burn up when exposed to sunlight, they are deeply disliked by cats, spend their days resting in bathtubs, take invigorating baths in blood and have to be invited before entering a room. Unfortunately, Lindqvist only allows us very brief glimpses into Eli's past and it remains rather vague how he / she came to be a vampire. Whilst this move adds to the mystery surrounding Eli, I still would have liked a little more background on Eli's past.
 
A lot of readers have remarked on the seemingly never-ending amount of graphic violence in the novel. Being a horror novel, one would and should expect that the book contains quite a few gory scenes. Whilst this may not be to everyone's taste, I have no problem with the depiction of violence. However, I didn't think that the gore emanating from the vampires was half as upsetting as the abuse Oskar is subjected to by his peers. Although substantial, the vampire elements of the book are only one part of the novel. Oskar's story - the story of a lonely boy with no one to confide in bar Eli - constitutes the real horror and makes for uncomfortable reading.

In fact, uncomfortable describes very well, how I felt during most parts of the book. This, however, isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as the story holds your attention and you want to carry on reading. For two thirds of the story Lindqvist certainly managed to keep me in his grip. Towards the end, however, and whilst the author was busy to tie all narrative strands together, my reading pace dropped and I think I must have stopped caring about the story, its characters and their fate.

I have experienced this phenomenon before, unfortunately in the context of novels written by  one of my all - time favourite authors: Stephen King. As regards Lindqvist and the claims of the critics, there are certainly a number of similarities between Lindqvist and King. Lindqvist has a similar way of depicting his characters' thoughts (mostly incomplete sentences in italics that interrupt the narration from time to time), he enjoys ridiculing organised religion and has a similar sense of humour. Unfortunately, his book also suffered from the problems encountered in so many of King's novels: the rushed, slightly unbelievable denoument at the end of the book. Perhaps, one could say that this is a common problem within the horror / fantasy genre. Perhaps, this applies to certain authors and certain novels in a variety of genres. Unfortunately, Lindqvist's storyline got out of hand and by the time I got to the end of the book, I simply lost interest.

My verdict in short: 3 out of 5 stars - For the best part, this novel is a gripping read interspersed with a lot of intelligent social commentary and Lindqvist certainly knows how to shock his readers. 









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