John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In

As a bookseller, I live for those moments when I discover a 9.5 out of 10 book.  I can count those books on the fingers of one hand.

To score 8 out of 10 in my own ranking, is to have created not only a believable narrative voice and/ or great lead character but to have furbished the narrative with a fantastic medley of minor characters who serve more function than simply propelling plot points.   Some authors would have us believe that plot is of no importance.  I have no scores for these authors because I never finish their rambling miasma of pretension.  Narrative is also important: as a reader I like to be able to see what an author imagined.

In short, an 8 out of 10 is a great book.

To put the scores in context, the last 9 out of 10 was China Mieville’s ‘The City and The City’ (and before that, the nearest scoring book was an 8.5: Chris Wooding’s ‘Retribution Falls’, marked down because I felt some back-story was a little over-explained and to be fair to Chris, this may have been the editor’s fault).
Now, I know this review for ‘Let the Right One In‘ appears quite a while after publication but what John Ajvide Lindqvist – and Ebba Segerberg, the translator of the English-language version – have achieved is nothing short of astonishing (and a question for Quercus, the UK publisher, why didn’t you guys use the Swedish book jacket design above?).

I didn’t watch either the original English-language or Hollywood remake films.  Having enjoyed the book so much, I will probably make an active effort to avoid them.  I also – thanks to the hype – didn’t read the book when it was first published in English, simply because I do not like having other people’s impressions affecting my interpretation and enjoyment of the story.

It’s fair to say that I am very particular about how a book should work.  It is not unusual for me to stop reading part-way through.  It may be that in a single moment, a character stops being believable or that knowing a particular area described by an author, I realise that they’ve simply looked at the place on a map or used a Lonely Planet guide to get local information.  The dialogue may have been poorly-edited or just been plain clunky.  The prose may be too rigidly precise.  It may not be at all functional.  The rhythm of the words in a sentence may jar and not suit a locale or character or the events portrayed, for example, long sentences during moments of action, short sentences in moments of contemplation.  Whatever.  If you wouldn’t be happy paying for a dentist to drill the wrong tooth, why pay for those ‘ouch‘ moments in a book?  Recycle it*.  The paper would be better deployed as a cardboard box.

To all appearances, Lindqvist’s story is ‘merely’ the reimagining of the vampire story.  If like me, you think that a whole generation of teenage girls are missing out because they believe that vampires can be ‘good’, then you know that to successfully reinvent – or at least, refresh – a genre is no mean feat even against such poor witless competition.  No, what Lindqvist has done has gone beyond Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘Lost Souls‘, for my money, the last great vampire novel.  Anne Rice’s novels were OK but they are not ‘classics’ let alone reinterpretations of this mythic character and genre.

Lindqvist has been able to accomplish this by not writing a vampire novel.  With me?  What he has done is ally the challenges of growing-up, of feeling unaccepted and unloved by society with the very intrusiveness and codified behaviour of a society that identifies and tries to normalise anything out of the norm, in this case, a vampire that looks like a twelve-year-old girl.

When we first meet Oskar, the narrator of ‘Let The Right One In’,, he is being treated so appallingly that we wonder what the adults must be thinking to notice his suffering.  He is so terrified of the abuse he endures daily that he has a sponge – a p*ssball – tucked into his pants so used has he become to the consequences of his terror.

In contrast with this, the horrific narrative of a serial killer on the hunt opens the novel.  It is an odd thing as a reader to discover that opposed in this way, we experience the terror of bullying as being just as great as the fear of imminent death.  There is not a single book I can think of that so thoroughly occupies the mind of a terrified teenager than this book.  The fear that Oskar experiences is in some parts of the book so all-consuming that I would be surprised if I was the only reader who had to put the book down and physically, look away.

In contrast, Oskar shows little fear of the vampire, Eli.  He intuits what his young friend may be quite early in the narrative and only once is given cause to fear his friend.  Strange that it is the vampire who understands Oskars childhood fears.  Stranger still that this malignant force of nature – and we are never allowed to forget that vampires are vicious killers  – is the one person who can show Oskar how to be strong.

I simply cannot say any more about the book without giving away vital plot-points or beautiful points of character development that must surely leave any aspiring author gaping in astonishment.  Lindqvist keeps the beating heart of the narrative going right up to the last page and crucially, without setting up the reader, leaves them not only wanting more but feeling satisfied.  Time spent reading this novel is time well-spent.  Not a word is wasted.  Not a drop.

* This is where physical books can trump an ebook every time: if the book is rubbish, you can throw it.  If the author’s work is particularly odious, you can rip it up.  Would you be able to enjoy the same release of pent-up argh with your Kindle/ ereader?