Friday, September 21, 2007

Let the Right One In – review

Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist

First Published: 2004

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: “Oskar and Eli. In very different ways, they were both victims. Which is why, against the odds, they became friends.

“And how they came to depend on one another, for life itself.

“Oskar is a 12 year old boy living with his mother on a dreary housing estate at the city’s edge. He dreams about his absentee father, gets bullied at school, and wets himself when he’s frightened.

“Eli is a young girl who moves in next door. She doesn’t go to school and never leaves the flat by day. She is a 200 year old vampire, forever frozen in childhood, and condemned to live on a diet of fresh blood.”

The review: Having read the blurb you’d be forgiven for supposing that this Swedish novel, which was translated into English for publication in the UK this year, was going to be a kids book, after all the two main characters are around 12.

Nothing could be further from the truth, this is a horror purely and simply, with some unusual and, at the same time, familiar vampire lore. However the horror of the book is split into two distinct areas. Despite a ritualistic murderer on the rampage in the first half of the book, which the reader knows is tied to Eli and her helper Håkan, the true horror of the first part of the book is mundane in nature. The bullying of Oskar is brutal, for instance, and his response disturbing. Oskar is no angel, a habitual shoplifter, it seems that he has been driven to the verge of murdering his tormentors and has become obsessed with serial killers.

Amongst the other characters we meet are his neighbour Tommy, a teenage thief and glue-sniffer, who resents his mother’s relationship with police officer and church-goer Staffan, who, himself, has barely repressed violent tendencies. Indeed, it is difficult to find characters that are not deeply flawed and yet, despite the flaws or maybe because of them, you find yourself becoming sympathetic to many of the characters and their plights.

Håkan himself is the most unsympathetic and disturbing of characters, posing as Eli’s father he is rather too fond of small boys and has had trouble in his past because of it. It is clear that he wants more from his relationship with the vampire than she is willing to give. A warning to those wanting to read this book, at this point, that some of the Håkan scenes are rather strong in content.

As the book progresses we never leave this suburban nightmare behind, Lindqvist drawing a living, black-hearted city around us. The horror from the hearts of man is over-whelmed, however, with the horror of the vampirism around them. I do not want to give too much away but I do want to look at the lore Lindqvist creates.

The vampirism is an infection, Eli does not see herself as a vampire or undead as she is still, very much, alive. However there can be undead vampires, we discover later, vampires whose minds have died after the infection has taken hold.

They are not, however natural creatures. They are stronger and faster, when fed, and can control their bodies in order to create fangs and claws: “The bones crackled in her hands as they stretched out, shot out through the melting skin of the fingertips and made long, curved claws. Same thing with her toes… …A shooting sensation in her teeth as Eli thought them sharp.”

They need a direct invitation to enter somewhere and the invitation has to be given for any entrance way to a domicile, therefore if they have used the door they cannot use the window without another invitation. The reaction when this is breached is very unusual. We see Eli, at one point, enter a building uninvited, no mystic force blocks her way but, once in, her blood begins to weep out of every pore and orifice until the invitation is given. If it had not been, she would have, presumably, died.

The other ways to kill a vampire are by sunlight or fire and by a stake in the heart. The reason for the stake is also unusual and its use theoretical as we do not see one actually used, but they are mentioned. Once a person is infected new cells begin to form around the heart, forming a secondary brain that is entirely dominated by the infection. The stake will kill the infection’s brain, the base intelligence that is able to drive them forward to kill. We get an indication that there might be conflict issues with the secondary, instinctive, brain and the more morally centred human brain.

We also discover that cats naturally hate vampires and may attack them on sight. Also vampires, or Eli at least, love puzzle games – a trait owing much to the tradition of vampires being obsessive compulsive, one feels.

Another unusual aspect was that rather than have Eli as a 200 year old trapped in a child’s body, Eli is very much a child still, frozen mentally and emotionally.

If the book had a flaw it is that the writing can, on a few occasions, seem to get clunky, for want of a better description. I suspect however that this had more to do with the translation process from Swedish to English than a fault with the original prose. It is only a minor issue, however, and not one to put a reader off exploring this excellent, innovative but highly disturbing novel.

7.5 out of 10.

Many thanks to Jim-fish for putting me on to this one.

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