Sweden’s Roslagen archipelago is home to almost 13,000 islands, but John Ajvide Lindqvist has added another, the isle of Domarö being a fictional setting for the second follow-up to his debut, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. That novel, a tale of vampirism imbued with a gritty social realism, established Lindqvist’s international reputation, and HARBOUR too boasts a strong supernatural element.
The story opens with married couple Anders and Cecilia trudging across a frozen bay with their young daughter Maja to visit the lighthouse at Gåvesten. An idyllic scene, it quickly turns to creeping horror when Maja simply disappears, leaving no trace her going on the pristine, snow-covered ice. What is truly horrifying to Anders, however, is that while Maja’s disappearance into thin air is certainly unusual, it’s not the first time the locals have experienced this kind of event. What monstrous presence lurks beneath the cold seas of the Roslagen archipelago?
Anders’ search for his daughter and his attempt to come to terms with his loss serves as only one strand of Lindqvist’s epic, sprawling account of an island possessed by demons of its own conjuring. The 515-page novel teems with vividly drawn characters, chief among them Anders’ grandparents, Simon and Anna-Greta, both of whom have supernatural secrets that they conceal not only from Anders and the island’s population at large, but from one another. As was the case with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, however, Lindqvist goes obliquely at the story’s heart of darkness. For the first third of the novel, HARBOUR resembles nothing less than a Swedish version of the magic realism we tend to associate more with Latin American authors, with only the vaguest intimations of the more conventional brand of horror writing to come.
Indeed, for long stretches Lindqvist simply concentrates on amplifying an entirely mundane but compelling terror, that of every parent’s worst nightmare, the child that disappears with no hint as whether he or she is dead or alive, safe or in danger. Meanwhile, the question the reader is left to answer is whether the emotionally fragile Anders, perpetually drunk and understandably prone to grasping at straws, is imagining that his daughter his calling to him to come rescue her, or if it’s all a figment of his deranged imagination.
Once the story hits its stride, however, Lindqvist fully embraces the supernatural elements that dominate the latter two-thirds of the novel. It’s then that his painstaking work in setting up the characters of Anders, Simon and Anna-Greta pays off. Rooted in a contemporary reality, and entirely empathetic in atmosphere and characterisation, the tale has earned its right to its flights of fancy, which include magic, ghostly hauntings and possession, and ultimately the emergence of an impossibly powerful evil from the black depths of the sea itself.
Perversely, given the shocking nature of the story, Lindqvist (translated from the original Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) writes in a quietly refined baroque style, sketching in elegant little flourishes when describing the landscape and the quirks and foibles of his protagonists. It’s no coincidence that the text, which is shot through with a poetic black humour, is littered with quotes from The Smiths (the title of Lindqvist’s debut, incidentally, was adapted from a Smiths’ lyric). It all makes for a fascinating blend, as if Stephen King had tried his hand at redrafting an outlandish fable by Borges.
As much a historical epic and contemporary myth as it is a horror story, HARBOUR is above all an engrossing novel that consolidates and enhances Lindqvist’s reputation. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.