BOOK REVIEW Harbour – John Ajvide Lindqvist
Water, water everywhere…
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Publisher: Quercus *500 pages * £17.99
7 October 2010
The title of Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s latest is a delicious pun; it refers both to the setting, a small island community reliant on fishing, and the word’s associations with keeping something secret, hidden. Whereas his first two novels, Let The Right One In and Handling The Undead, reinvented vampires and zombies respectively, the Big Bad here is an elemental force: the sea itself.
Lindqvist’s own father tragically drowned, so it’s understandable that he sees the potential for menace here. He inculcates a spine-chilling awareness of the unseen depths, reminding you just how omnipresent water is. Human civilisation is the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that pokes out of a vast ocean. Compared to it, “we mean less than a grain of sand on an elephant’s back.”
Set on the fictional island of Domaro, it centres on Anders. One winter day, as the sea froze over he, his wife, and six-year-old daughter Maja skied across to the nearby lighthouse. Glimpsing something on the ice, Maja scampered off to investigate, then vanished without trace. Two years later, returning to his old house for the first time since, Anders slowly begins to suspect that he’s being possessed by his daughter’s spirit…
There’s a mystery to solve here, but that’s just one of Harbour’s many pleasures. It’s an expansive tale, which unfolds with countless asides and flashbacks to the history of both the island and Anders’s family tree.. We time-hop to the ‘80s to watch teens playing strip poker; to WW2 to see Anders’s grandmother smuggling, and observe as his magician grandfather leaps off a jetty, chained up in a sack. Lindqvist is as accomplished at placing himself within the minds of an elderly couple as they make love as he is a grieving father. And he’s masterful at sketching the small details that make a moment spring to life: a rectangle of light reflected in a mug of tea, a “faint hint of Juicy Fruit” on a girl’s breath.
He also has some wonderfully bizarre notions, such as a woman who’s using plastic surgery to make herself look older and uglier, and two ghostly teens who communicate entirely in snatches of Smiths lyrics. The latter does start to seem a mite self-indulgent. And as the evidence stacks up that Maja is far from an isolated case, it does rather stretch credulity that no-one has uncovered the island’s secrets before. But these are piddling quibbles. Both an eerie, enigmatic mystery and a compendium of fascinating vignettes, this is a third consecutive masterpiece for an author who deserves to be as much of a household name as Stephen King.