Posts Tagged ‘Stieg Larsson’

Its odd how my book reading lurks in certain genres for a while: after a crime spree, I notice a range of horror books collecting on the pages of this blog – with more on my to-be-read list.

I wonder what it is with Scandi-Lit.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; Jo Nesbø; Mons Kallentoft … There seems to be a certain sensibility that they share; a sensitivity for the darkest recesses of the human psyche; an unflinching a sense of social responsibility; a sympathy for the effects of the environment surrounding their characters; a keen eye for the intricate details of domestic life; and a spareness and economy of language.

And Lindqvist’s vampire novel, Let The Right One In fits into exactly this milieu.

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This is the story of Oskar, 12 year old boy, whose divorced parents struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow in the suburb of Blackeberg.

It is a typical – slightly pretentious – English teacher thing to say that the setting is a character in its own right but it is so infrequently actually true. James Joyce’s Dublin od Ulysses and The Dubliners manages it. Lindqvist’s Blackeberg also breathes and seethes throughout the novel, as dark, poisonous and insidious as the vampire itself.

The novel opens with The Location:

Blackeberg.

It was not a place that developed organically of course. Here, everything was carefully planned from the outset. And people moved into what had been built for them. Earth-coloured concrete buildings scattered about in green fields.

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one. That is to say, there was something about an old mill. A tobacco king. Some strange old buildings down by the water. But that was a long time ago and without any connection to the present.

Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, it’s rationality. It tell you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and if terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

No one saw them move in.

Blackeberg – soulless and bereft of history – is an echo of the vampire itself – equally soulless and utilitarian in its hunger. It is the home of glue-sniffing teenagers, broken families, a community of drunkards, vicious bullies and the mentally disturbed.

And it is into this environment that the waif like and mysterious Eli and the hopeless hapless lumbering paedophile Hakan Bengtsson move.

And children start dying.

The plot in the novel moves with an horrific sense of inevitability. The situation is achingly familiar to anyone who has even the vaguest notion of vampirism. We know the hunger. We know the inevitable conflict that that hunger creates.

But the heart of this novel is Eli and the relationship between Eli and Oskar. Eli has endured two centuries of being twelve years old. Vampire. Manipulator. Killer. Innocent.

She is not the monster of Stoker’s invention – indeed Hakan is possibly the closest to that role – nor is she the insipid and limp fairy of Meyer’s Twilight series. Somehow the balance between her feeding – as with much Scandinavian Literature, explored without blushing from the visceral – and her childish innocence is maintained throughout. She is a remarkable achievement and a haunting creation. She is not dissimilar at all to Amy Harper Bellafonte in Justin Cronin’s The Passage (click here for my review) and The Twelve

And some of the dialogue between her and Oskar is heart-achingly realistic and beautiful.

As indeed is some of the dialogue and interactions between the drunkards, especially Virginia and Lacke. Isolated and alone, seeking comfort in alcohol and one-night stands, their helpless inability to communicate and their self-protective barbs needling each other to maintain the protective bubbles whilst simultaneously clinging to each other was painful.

The book is not without flaws – the almost inevitable attempt to explain the vampirism in medical terms – that the infection causes a tumour of brain cells to develop on the heart (and recalled unpleasant memories of ovarian dermoid cysts being opened up on some Channel Four documentary to reveal teeth, eyes and hair). There is also at one point a rather clumsy attempt to verbalise some of the implicit connections between the environment and the disease at the heart of the novel.

It is, however, quite simply one of the best, most haunting books – certainly one of the very best vampire books – that I have read.

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I worry about Sweden.

It keeps me up at night.

I wake in cold sweats.

I worry about the weather there: the snow and freezing temperatures. I worry about the trolls. I worry about IKEA. And I worry about the people. And families.

It must be a terrible place.

Every single novel I’ve read from there – Stieg Larsson, Mons Kallentoft and now Lars Kepler – seem to hold a mirror up to show the twisted, rotting heart of Swedish families. Darkly. Incest, violence, neglect, abuse.

I suppose any country that invents the concept of IKEA must have something to hide beneath the surface of its sleek plywood exterior.

I also worry about the effect of these books on the Swedish tourist economy. Especially on any hotel, bed and breakfast or hostel labelling itself as family-run.

*Disclaimer: yes, I do understand that these are works of fiction. This is not racism; it’s satire!*

Kepler – which is actually the nom de plume of the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril – opens The Hypnotist with the slaughter of what seems to be an entire family. The violence is gruesome but not lingered over – which is a relief to those of us with a tender nervous system! – and a couple of images of severed limbs and joints suffice.

A child is discovered still to be alive despite multiple wounds and extensive injuries and he is rushed to hospital. A familiar image then resolves: the well-meaning but somewhat brusque police officer wants to interview the child; the concerned doctor says he’s not up to it. And it’s at this point that the doctor calls in an expert in trauma care: the eponymous hypnotist Erik Maria Bark.

This is a book that jumps around between different points of view and we see the events of the story through the eyes of Bark; his wife Simone – whose nickname of Sixan I found was oddly sweet; Sixan’s father, a retired but police officer with a somewhat mythic status; and the aforementioned Police Officer, Joona Linna. Apparently Linna is the main character in the book which is the first in a series based around him.

Which is a little odd: Linna has a rather minimal role in the book and is the least used point of view; the book is not named after him; his character is barely fleshed out. Perhaps the plan is for Linna to be little more than a thread from which to hang more interesting characters that he encounters.

Erik Bark’s is the first viewpoint we see. Bark is given the honour of an extended first person flashback narrative half way through the book.

And Bark I did find interesting. His relationship with Sixan – flawed, frayed and fragile as it was – was actually quite moving. A hypnotist who doesn’t hypnotise. A doctor who self-medicates. A husband who has betrayed his wife. The way that a simple misunderstanding – the wrong person at the hospital answers his phone – fed by a previous betrayal – leads to doubt, fear and suspicion and eventually the disintegration of the relationship was actually rather deftly handled and moving. I hope that it doesn’t reflect the two Alex Ahndorils’ relationship! I’ve got enough to worry about!

There are a number of plots running through this book. The slaughtered family that opens the book is dealt with rather quickly: within 50 pages or so the injured boy, Joseph Ek, has been hypnotised, confessed to the murders, given the police the location of his surviving sister and escaped from hospital. Thereafter, Bark’s son Benjamin is kidnapped and the main plot commences. The race to find and rescue Benjamin is given even more urgency as he has a blood clotting disease and will die without weekly injections. The pace of the book is quick: the chapters are really short, perhaps 3 or 4 pages; the writing is in present tense; the changes in perspective are rapid; the writing is quite visual … it’s almost as if the Ahndorils had a mind to a film version as they were writing. A third and the weakest plot evolves as Sixan and her father investigate Benjamin’s computer in which a local gang – somewhat oddly naming themselves after Pokemon characters – have been terrorising Benjamin’s girlfriend and her brother.

The plots involving the Ek family and Benjamin’s disappearance were not terribly well integrated. The Ek plot seemed little more than a device to introduce Erik Bark and I felt it had more potential to be developed in its own right or could have been knitted into the main plot more fully. I wonder whether one was Alexandra’s plot and one was Alexander’s.

There is another gripe I have with the plotting. The main theme is that the past is never past: as a hypnotist, Bark’s research is to resolve his patients’ traumatic histories; Erik’s past betrayal gives Sixan’s present misunderstanding real pain. And the past is at the root of Benjamin’s kidnapping which we learn is rooted in the reasons why Erik gave up hypnotism. But he doesn’t remember that incident until he comes across a video of a hypnosis session. It just didn’t strike me as realistic that the phrase “the haunted house” would not have triggered Erik’s memory as soon as he had heard it!

Altogether though, a decent well paced thriller. And insofar as genres are useful (limited if at all: I do find genre a limiting concept. The temptation is to only read the books that a publisher has given a certain label too. Surely the only real genres are books-I-like and books-I-don’t-like. Otherwise we end up with Polonius wondering whether a book is

tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

Anyway, rant over…) I’d say it is a thriller rather than crime because of the prominence of Bark as a character over Linna.

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