Saturday, 13 November 2010

Book Review: Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)    
by John Ajvide Lindqvist – 2001 - 513 pages
Remember the ‘80s? Not like this you don’t. Lindqvist has resurrected the growingly popular decade in this Scandinavian take on the vampire story. It’s oddly appropriate for this tale to take part in a time when, to many, society began to break down and change for the worst. These themes are demonstrated thoroughly in Let the Right One In, featuring all the vices that afflict urban areas and beyond. But, first and foremost, it takes a hard look at loneliness in all its forms, particularly the kind experienced by those on the cusp between childhood and teenage years. Not to mention the kind a vampire trapped in a 12-year-old’s body experiences after 200 years on earth.

Oskar is our protagonist, a 12-year-old boy with serious personal problems. Not only does he have to put up with intensely unpleasant bullying at school, he also has a troubled relationship with his parents after their separation, an incontinence problem and shoplifts for emotional relief. With no one to talk to or trust he retreats into his own mind and increasingly dark thoughts. And this is when he suddenly meets Eli in the park outside his house. With matted hair, and a strange body odour, Eli is not like any girl he has ever met. She also happens to be a vampire, and is living next door with her guardian Hakan, who is responsible for collecting blood for her. The two find an odd kinship with each other (over the iconic rubiks cube) and discover the acceptance and love they’ve both been looking for. But it isn’t without its consequences.

To say Let the Right One In is a dark story would be a massive understatement. At times it is truly horrendous, and not in the way you would expect from a typical vampire story. Anne Rice this is not, and the bleak and harsh realities of life in a poor district of Stockholm are only too evident, with drug use, abuse and crime all common features of the story. At its heart it is a coming of age tale, albeit a very twisted one, and the weaknesses of all the characters are only too evident. Most of the adult figures have their own problems, and as often happens get too caught up in these to notice the cries for help emanating from the young people around them, as well as from each other. To a certain extent they are all lonely in one form or another, with Oskar’s obvious ostracism from his peers, to the way his mother retreats into her “shows”, to the effect of drugs and alcohol and their use in dulling the pain. This is not in any way a warming tale. While love and affection are evident between the two leads and their moments together are sweet and innocent, the results of their relationship are not. In Lindqvist’s world there is always a heavy price to pay.

The narrative takes a turn around a third of the way in, which some may find disconcerting, different as it is to what has come before. This may be an effort on the writer’s part to put a bit more of the cliché of the vampire tales into his work, though to this reviewer was more a case of showing the evil that can be created by our own actions and that can lurk inside even the most unlikely of people. There is also a twist that works excellently, and forces the reader to question their own stance on where love and friendship begin and end (if indeed they do), and adds an unexpected tenderness and uniqueness to the story that would have been lacking without it.

Don’t read Let the Right One In if you’re looking for the “Swedish Stephen King” as some have spouted about Lindqvist since the book’s release. That’s unfair to both writers, as they are nothing alike in style or content. Stephen King writes (or used to) horror stories that genuinely scare, based in and around areas that are mundane and ordinary. Let the Right One In is not scary in the same sense, though certainly the terrifying sides of people are more than evident. No doubt the two have been compared as the story is entirely set around a typical run down district that any of us from a city can recognise. But that’s as far as the similarity goes. If you want to read a truly original take on the vampire genre, as well as an excellent dissection of loss and loneliness, how people cope with it and the results of their actions, than this is the book for you.

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