Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Let the Right One In

St. Martin's Press, 2007

Loneliness plays an important part in coming of age stories. Toss in brutal bullying of a latchkey kid, single moms, a nondescript – read soulless – apartment complex, an assortment of teenaged glue sniffers, drunks, and other layabouts living on their disability benefits and you have the makings of a contemporary take on the usual outsider story.

Add a bleak, wintery landscape and a pedophile, Hakan, who moves in next door to the 12-year-old protagonist, Oskar, with his “daughter” of the same age, and you might have a predictable story. Except that in John Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In,” the girl, Eli, is a vampire.

A series of gruesome murders occur and Oscar compiles newspaper clippings in his scrapbook. This is not morbid behavior. The story is set in 1982 and the Nintendo Entertainment System hasn’t been invented yet. Anyone who has played a video game knows that plenty of slaughter happens on the screen. Parents reading about Oscar’s scrapbook actually wish their kids would turn off the video games and read about murder in the newspaper.

Hakan is to Eli as Renfield was to Dracula, only with a sick twist. He worships Eli, but it’s his sexual compulsion which drives the truly horrific, and the sickly comic, aspects of this story. He supplies her with blood . . . at a price, but his ineptitude leads to his capture. Even here, Eli takes pity on him, but her sympathy leads to a further twist in the story and Hakan becomes a zombie with an erection. This is new in vampire lit. It is also social commentary. Hakan is a pedophile who will never be rehabilitated, much less killed.

These three are the fulcrum around which the intersecting stories of a multitude of characters converge. The chapters are short and the author feels free to jump into all his character’s minds as they aimlessly head for disaster. This is author as God, but Lindqvist doesn’t disappoint. Even the short chapter where we’re in the mind of a squirrel is well-written and packs a punch at its end. Don’t misread my words – I loved this book. It’s every writer’s dream to be able to get away with these POV shifts. Only a good plot and an author who knows where he’s going can do it.

These twists wouldn’t be enough if they weren’t contrasted with the everyday terror of schoolyard bullying, leading to the eternal question of who is more violent, the humans or the vampire?

The friendship between Oskar and Eli is tender and nonsexual. There is a gender-bending aspect which underlines their bond, and is a further contrast to the adult lives around them. Like some alternative Charlie Brown Cartoon Special, all the adults are marginal or missing. Those that are present are shadowy losers, except the gym teacher (go figure), and he provides only minor optimism. That arrived toward the end of the book so I knew more bad stuff was going to happen to Oscar.

Just when I thought he’d solved his problem with the bullies, they come back in force. In my heart, I was rooting for Eli to appear and save Oscar, and you will be too.

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