Sunday, March 6, 2011

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I believe that, partly thanks to John Ajvide Lindqvist, I’m developing a liking for Swedish authors. There has certainly been an increase in Swedish novels being translated to English, and thankfully so. I don’t want my lack of proficiency with the Swedish language to keep me from relishing a novel as beautiful as Let the Right One In.

I wanted to read this book because I saw the movie and I fell in love with it. I was both intrigued and deeply moved by the story of Oskar, a bullied twelve-year-old boy, and Eli, a girl who has moved in next door—and who happens to be a vampire. Thus begins a friendship between two children who inhabit a cutthroat world in which their lives are little more than survival. In Eli, Oskar finds a friend who encourages him to stand up for himself. In Oskar, Eli finds her first real friend in over two hundred years.

When I read the book, I found that the movie is, for the most part, a satisfying adaptation, though strikingly different in several ways. The movie is beautifully done; it’s atmospheric, subtle and poetic, making use of a stark winter backdrop, a rhythmically poignant score, somber lighting and muted colors, all coming together into a deeply felt, aesthetically pleasing whole.

Take, for example, Oskar’s room. In the movie it is filled with earth tones like soft blue, deep brown and orange. When Eli sneaks into his room to share his bed, their skin stands out stark pale against the deep brown bed sheets. Artistically it’s a beautiful moment, and very emotive.

Now compare that to the book description of his room: a huge KISS poster on the wall and a stereo with heavy metal CDs, as well as porn beneath his bed. Not to mention that Oskar is a chubby kid who chomps on candy while lying on his bed, paging through his scrapbook of gruesome newspaper clippings, feeding his morbid fascination with serial killers and their methods of murder.

Needless to say that reading the book after seeing the movie was rather jarring.

Lindvist is not sentimental, nor is he poetic. In some ways, the book is considerably grittier than the movie; and while the movie keeps its scope narrowed to Oskar and Eli, the book is more about an ensemble of people living in this little town in Sweden. Oskar and Eli are only two of them.

To name a few, we have Gösta, a recluse who lives with dozens of cats and rarely has any human contact; there’s Virginia, a grocery store clerk with a complicated, on-again, off-again relationship with a man named Lacke; and Tommy, a young delinquent in Oskar’s neighborhood who’s having a hard time accepting his mother’s policeman boyfriend.

While ostensibly these people have little to do with each other, they all struggle with the same universal human condition: letting people in. It’s like the aftermath of a battleground littered with damaged and broken relationships. For example, at some point in the story, Virginia regrets letting Lacke in after he breaks her heart again. Meanwhile, Gösta rarely, if ever, leaves his apartment to go out in public, preferring the company of animals to humans. Tommy is an angry teenager who lashes out in acts of vandalism because he’s unwilling to communicate with his mother. While these characters are not necessarily sympathetic, they are certainly very human, and they make up the substance of Lindvist’s palpable study of isolation.

Lindvist does justice to Eli’s character by not going out of his way to make her sympathetic. While readers may feel for the innocent people she preys on, Eli herself is an engaging character. She’s manipulative, cunning and remorseless in her hunts for human blood; yet she also possesses a playful, childlike side, which emerges in her interactions with Oskar. The two enjoy solving puzzles (they bond over a Rubik’s Cube) and causing bits of mischief, not unlike ordinary children, and for the first time, Eli quenches something other than her bloodlust: her desire for a human connection is fulfilled, something that her lifestyle didn’t leave room for.

The two can relate to each other in that their instinct for self-preservation involves the spilling of blood. While Oskar frequently fantasizes about murdering the bullies who torment him—even stabbing a tree in his backyard, while imagining he’s stabbing a bully in the eye—when he does lash out in self-defense, it frightens him. The reality of it hits him; how different it is to go from fantasizing to actually committing acts of violence. Upon realizing that Eli is a vampire, he angrily confronts her about her murderous endeavors, only to be reminded that he without sin should cast the first stone. It’s what they resort to in the fight for survival that becomes their equalizer.

Let the Right One In is both a thrilling fantasy and an unflinching portrayal of human isolation, as well as what we resort to when faced with the fundamental realities of life and death. A book like this defies genre, thereby appealing both to fantasy lovers and to the mainstream reader.

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