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Let the Right One In (Lindqvist) — book review

I always meant to watch the 2009 film of this (details on IMDB), but came across Lindqvist‘s Let the Right One In in the Kindle store and thought that I would buy it to save for a moment of boredom when I wanted to read something on my phone/iPad (I use the app and don’t have an actual Kindle). That moment came on a plane recently, when I’d read most of Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (review) and wanted something new to help keep me awake!

I would highly recommend this book, as it’s a gripping read.

Although told mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the book tackles a wide range of seriously ‘grown-up’ issues, including child abuse and neglect, ‘broken homes’  and absent parents, alcoholism, paedophilia, and chronic bullying. It can be hard to judge when reading in translation, but I found Lindqvist’s style wonderfully clear and lucid. I enjoyed the story’s focus on two core groups that parallel one other: Oskar and his classmates, and Lacke and his friends (and fellow alcoholics).

The growing relationship between Oskar and new arrival, Eli, is a joy. There is something very understated in the way that each and every momentous discovery in their relationship — She’s a vampire? She’s a boy? — is handled lightly but not flippantly. Oskar’s growing detachment from his parents and isolation from his schoolmates, most of whom either actively bully him or passively ostracise him, leaves his hopes of having his emotional needs met pinned exclusively on Eli. The coming-of-age story, Oskar beginning to stand up for himself and pursue physical fitness as a means of taking control of his life, is blended with the horror story of a vampire slipping into the midst of the small community and decimating it. Bodies stack up quickly, and Eli is both monstrous and fascinating. Eli’s story, told mainly in flashbacks, has echoes of Anne Rice’s Armand, but isn’t Lindqvist’s focus, and it lurks in the background as a dark echo of the suffering of the modern-day children in the book.

Many of the most heartrending moments come from these ‘minor’ characters, particularly from Tommy, an older teen, sliding into drug use and petty crime, whose mother is on the verge of marrying a police officer who will inevitably hate his stepson (the suggestion is he’s a likely abuser); and from Jonny, Oskar’s nemesis, whose tangled family situation and struggle with his emotions about his absent father, hint at sad roots to his behaviour.

The book manages to produce moments of real menace, and surprisingly, none of them were incited by Eli. I felt real terror for Tommy, locked in with a brain-damaged, priapic, vampire-Hakan; for Oskar as Jonny and his brother and friends begin to descend upon him, apparently intent on murder or maiming; and for Eli when being attacked by paedophile Hakan, and when Lacke plans to murder Eli for killing his friend Jocke and his some-time girlfriend, Virginia. Although only a small element in the novel, I also felt real concern for Tommy’s mother, so wishing to be loved that she is willing to shrink herself — and probably put herself in physical danger — in order to be in a relationship with police officer Steffan.

This is a story where the weak, generally children, but also vulnerable adults, are threatened and imperilled by the strong; where those who are abused turn on those below them in turn; and where a darker threat is in fact a possible saviour. It is sensitive and well done, except for the very ending of the book, when Eli murders Jonny and his brother in order to rescue Oskar. The violence between Oskar and his bullies had been slowly escalating, through physical wounds and arson to their attempted murder, but I wonder whether its culmination had to be so flippant. Eli whips off their heads and, whilst flying, deposits them in the swimming pool. Was the sadism in Eli’s revenge really needed? Perhaps it was, as the ultimate escalation of the whole novel’s violence, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.

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