I needed something to review for Saturday (all the remaining commissioned reviews are waiting on books yet to arrive). John Ajvide Lindqvist 2004’s novel Låt den rätte komma in (published in English as Let The Right One In) seemed like just the right book for a quiet Thursday evening: young protagonist, exotic location , a hint of the supernatural. I’ve read Swedish juvenile fiction so I have a pretty clear idea where this would lead: one part Pippi Longstocking to one part Kalli Blomqvist, am I right?
Twelve-year-old Oskar is the victim of unending persecution from a cabal of bullies at his school. He deals with his predicament in a number of not especially effective ways. He tries (and generally fails) to hide from the bullies. He has a successful track-record as a habitual shoplifter. He indulges in a rich fantasy life about just how he would kill his schoolmates if he ever got the chance.
The unsympathetic Oskar doesn’t have any friends willing to defend him. The adults are just as useless, although Oskar’s mother has the excuse that Oskar goes to great lengths to conceal his situation and his proclivities from her.
Oskar takes the first step towards a new and exciting life when he befriends his new neighbor Eli; Eli is even more of social outcast than Oskar, but unlike Oskar, as long as Eli’s physical needs are taken care of, Eli is not terribly concerned about fitting in. It doesn’t take long for Eli and Oskar to become fast friends … and more.
What Oskar doesn’t know, because almost nobody does, is that Eli’s current guardian Håkan is a serial killer, a predator preying on young boys. Despite their best efforts, the police have been unable to catch or identify Håkan; fearful parents like Oskar’s mother have to settle for trying to keep their sons safely hidden indoors.
Oskar seems to win a respite when he finally turns on his persecutors. Oskar is only one boy while the bullies are many, a collective convinced of their right to prey on the weak. What in other books would have finally freed Oskar of torment instead begins cycles of escalating retaliation.
Håkan eventually slips up. Cornered, he does his best to obliterate his face, his identity, and any hint of connection to Eli. While the police methodically pore over the few clues they have to the identity of the faceless man handcuffed to a hospital bed, Eli is left to take care of themself.
Much to the cost of a number of innocent bystanders, as a vampire forever trapped in the body of a tween, Eli has some difficulty in meeting their needs and isn’t quite as careful about covering up their tracks as they need to be.
Well, this wasn’t quite as upbeat as I had hoped, although I guess it’s nice to know school life in Sweden circa 1981 was essentially the same wolves and rabbits arrangement as in Canada. They even have the occasional well-meaning adult authority figure managing to make bad situations worse. At least in Oskar’s case, the running feud with his bullies has a happy ending.
Ther is one interesting difference between the Canadian school system (as I understand it) and the Swedish system (as it is portrayed here). Leaving aside the whole living dead issue, Eli isn’t quite the twelve-year-old girl Oskar assumes Eli to be when they first meet in the park. Various revelations ensue, which Oscar manages to take in stride. It seems clear from the text that this is because the school system in Sweden tolerates a wider range of relationships than are accepted in Canada, or in the US.
Eli’s alliance with pedophile predator Håkan seems to have been driven by necessity. Eli was turned into a vampire when they were still young. Vampirism grants agelessness, but the cost is stasis. Eli cannot hope for a growth spurt; they also are stuck with the cognitive limitations of a tween. This is poor preparation for all the challenges that come with being a vampire .
I couldn’t say I really enjoyed reading this tale of the island of broken undead toys, but it certainly was effective at making its cast of monsters and victims more sympathetic than one might expect. I suppose that explains why this was translated to English, why there were what seems to have been two fairly successful movie adaptations, and why there was (I believe) a sequel as well.
1: From a Canadian perspective. I expect the Swedes have gotten used to being in Sweden by now.
2: This is one of those vampire stories in which the ease of making new vampires (both deliberately and accidentally) is very hard to reconcile with the conceit that most people think vampires are mythological. While Eli isn’t as careless as some undead I could mention, they’re nowhere near as careful as they need to be to successfully conceal the existence of vampires.
I have this feeling if I’d ever actually read Peter Pan (rather than having absorbed the story by cultural osmosis), I might want to draw parallels between Peter’s cognitive stasis and Eli’s inability to grow past the stage they were in when they became a vampire.