Monday, 31 October 2011

Book Review | Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Lennart Cederstrom was walking in the forest when he saw it. A baby girl lying in a plastic bag.

Horrified, he rushed to give her the kiss of life. But what happened next changed his life forever. Her first breath was something astounding: a perfect musical note. For an ageing singer, this incredible child was irresistible, and Lennart could only hurry her home and take her into his care.

Fearing the watchful eyes of the authorities, Lennart decided to hide his foundling daughter from view. So he and his wife kept her in the basement.

Was what she became Lennart's fault for choosing to hide her? Did the person who abandoned her in the woods know something terrible lay in her future? Or was it just a trick of fate to turn this little star into the most terrifying thing imaginable?


In one fell swoop Let the Right One In launched the career of Sweden's answer to Stephen King, and it is, needless to say, a terrific novel... if not the equal (though I'll make no friends for saying this) of the exquisite, almost art-house adaptation that filmmaker Tomas Alfredson directed from a script by the original author in 2008.

Next to the timeless tale of Oskar and Eli, the protagonists of Handling the Undead, wherein John Ajvide Lindqvist attempted to do for zombies what his sensitive debut had done for vampires, paled rather into insignificance, and while Harbour - Lindqvist's ghost story - was quite a bit better, even it could not emerge from the long shadow of Let the Right One In.

Little Star does. In fact Lindqvist's fourth novel, not including an as-yet untranslated collection of short stories - give it to me! - is hands down his best yet. It sees the herald of a whole new wave of horror once again determined to humanise the essentially inhuman, with his sympathetic sights set this time on the idea of doppelgangers, twinned in spirit if not in appearance.

We meet Theres first... though to begin with she has no name. She's just Little One: an abandoned infant former folk artist Lennart Cederstrom finds in the woods one day, buried in a plastic bag like an unloved litter of kittens. In a moment of madness - that is, madness or absolute clarity - he breathes a second chance at life into this baby girl's lungs and takes her home.

Stuck with one another till death do they part, Lennart and his wife Laila have been utterly miserable together, and they see Theres, who by some quirk of nature can produce perfect musical notes, as a last chance at happiness. Thus they take her in, hide her in the basement, and - fearful of the police, and discovery, and a return to the nightmare of their lives before Theres - tell their impossible daughter that she must remain always in the house, lest the Big People with hate in their heads (versus the love Lennart and Laila have for her in theirs) eat her up.

So it's hard to hold Theres' subsequent behaviour against her. After all, when she smashes open the skulls of her parents, one after the other, to pick apart their brains, she is only looking for love.

Then there's Teresa...

Little Star is not, needless to say, a particularly pretty novel. Granted, it is prettily written - and ably translated, too, by Marlaine Delargy, come up in the world since her work on Anne Holt's abysmal 1222 - but in a lot of ways Lindqvist's latest is a book about ugliness; ugliness of all shapes and sizes, whether inherited, adopted or instilled by the hand of man. Also figuring into the equation, besides the aforementioned parricide: harrowing domestic violence, suggestions of sexual abuse, exploitation for financial gain, and some truly cruel and unusual bulletin-board trolling. I could go on, but I'd really rather not.

That said, Little Star does not trade in the dollars and cents of dread and disgust common to most modern horror novels. Thankfully, it appears Lindqvist has moved on from the things that go bite in the night he found such success with early in his career. Little Star has its chills and it has its thrills, yes - a thousand times yes! - but its most potent currency is I think the creeping, crawling idea of unease that hangs ever in the air, like a wisp of smoke no amount of wind can shift... the sense that something if not inherently evil then utterly, awfully ignorant of the difference between right and wrong is ever in the offing. And usually, it is.

I found the first few chapters of Lindqvist's latest perfectly impressive, which is to say solid, but not exactly remarkable in and of themselves. By the culmination of Lennart and Laila's nightmarish narrative, however, Little Star had buried its hooks deep in me, and when at last Theres and Teresa's paths cross, as they must, I was positively beside myself, reeling from the raw power of this tale of two sisters of sorts, who finally find themselves in one another.

As beautiful as it is twisted, Little Star - as in twinkle, twinkle, and it does - is bleak and mysterious from first to last, and though it is brutal at times, Lindqvist only renders the violence rather than reveling in it, as many of his contemporaries tend to, to the detriment of their texts. Like Let The Right One In before it, then, Little Star is leagues apart from that: disturbing, understated and sweetly, sickly stunning... a must-read for anyone with a passing interest in modern horror.


Little Star
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

UK Publication: September 2011, Quercus

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