My first review of the year is also my first review for NordicFINDS, Annabookbel’s month-long celebration of Nordic writing.
The Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, or the ‘Swedish Stephen King’ as he’s lazily known, shot to fame courtesy of the hit movie adaptation of his novel Let the Right One In. That novel was an elegant and original take on the vampire genre, which highlighted his ability to skilfully blend the human and the demonic in a believable and relatable way.
His third novel Harbour – expertly translated by Marlaine Delargy – explores an even more lethal nemesis: the sea. Set on the fictional island of Domaro on the Swedish archipelago, the book weaves together folklore, maritime history, ‘80s nostalgia and outright horror.
Anders is a Domaro native, descended from island fishermen who grew up on the island alongside the more affluent summer visitors who come from Stockholm. Tensions run high between these two groups and Anders has felt inferior throughout his life. Now living in the city with his wife Cecilia and their 6 year old daughter Maja, the family come to Domaro to holiday in the family home – known as the ‘Shack’ – which Anders still owns.
On one such visit, the family visit the local lighthouse, skiing over thick ice and Maja mysteriously disappears, leaving no trace. Two years later, Anders and Cecilia have split up and Anders returns to his ramshackle family home on Domaro to see if he can find out what happened to his daughter in between bouts of heavy drinking.
Anders only remaining family on the island are his grandmother Anna-Greta and her partner Simon. Before settling on the island, Simon was a famous magician and escape artist in the Houdini mode who is now in possession of a strange slug like creature he calls Spiritus, which he keeps in a matchbox. The true nature of this strange creature is slowly revealed, alongside the underlying mystery of both Maja’s disappearance and the ongoing disappearances throughout the centuries of the island community.
“We know that . . . we are damned. And we live with it. That’s the way it is.”
It seems that Maja isn’t the first, or the most unusual disappearance on the island, for many others on this island have gone missing, too, taken by the cold and terrifying Baltic waters. These disappearances are bad, but what is worse are the reappearances of the missing, who return unchanged as revenants from the dead. Can Anders ever find his daughter and by doing so, rediscover his will to live?
The narrative of Harbour flits back and forth in time, filling in the backstory not only of Anders but of the island population as a whole. Lindqvist successfully evokes the claustrophobic atmosphere of small island life, where the past can never quite be escaped and still plays havoc on the present. He is careful to build the more fantastical elements of his story slowly, introducing the narrative initially as an exploration of why one child has gone missing, and opening it out to a wider, more frightening scenario.
Like Stephen King, he makes smart use of pop culture, particularly in the sections set in the ‘80s and having a pair of teenage revenants forever trapped in their obsession with The Smiths is a small stroke of genius. The history of this island community is brought vividly to life, but sometimes the long and intricate flashbacks of various characters means that the narrative lags and loses focus. At a chunky 500 pages, Harbour could have done with a good edit. Lindqvist has a tendency to add just a little bit too much information and as a result can be a heavy-handedness which bogs down the plot.
For the most part though, this is an engaging and atmospheric horror novel which intriguingly explores the effects of communal trauma on a population and juxtaposes the fantastical, the supernatural and reality seamlessly.
READ ON: IBOOK
NUMBER READ: 358
NUMBER REMAINING: 388
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!