Thursday 28 October 2010

Book Review: Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Something very peculiar is happening in Stockholm. There's a heatwave on and people cannot turn their lights out or switch their appliances off. Then the terrible news breaks. In the city morgue, the dead are waking up...

What do they want? Why, what everybody wants: to come home.


Everyone is something to someone. Doesn't matter whether we're talking good people or bad, young or old, black or white, rich or poor: everyone is something to someone. A mother or a father or a friend. A brother or a sister or a son. A daughter. A lover.

As a species, we puny humans... we're a social animal. We're defined, when you get right down to it, by the perceptions and expectations of others - just as they are by ours - or perhaps we are who we are because of a lack in that regard, an unrequited desire. Seems such an obvious fact it hardly bears saying, but you know, come the zombie apocalypse, I bet we'll overlook a whole lot in the resulting fuss. Hands up who's going to brushing their teeth when the undead are knocking at the door?

John Ajvide Lindqvist's second novel is all about redressing that balance. Following a sort of reverse blackout which has television sets hissing and pacemakers slapping madly away, the "reliving" walk the earth. Or, rather, as the rising Swedish equivalent of vintage Stephen King has it, they walk the streets of Stockholm. And where do they walk? En masse to a shopping mall to terrorise a ragtag band of survivors?

Not so much. The reliving go home, of course. They go back to their loved ones, to the lives they had thought - inasmuch as any dead person can think - lost, where they are met not with shotguns, for these are not the undead as we have known them (they've really very little interest in eating your brains), but with hysteria, rejection, religious fervour and an array of other perfectly relatable reactions.

Handling the Undead follows four narrators thus confronted by their past in the form of the rotten reliving and/or the desiccated undead. Mahler is a former photo-journalist caught between the story of a lifetime and the recovery of his recently deceased son; an horrific run-in with an elk has left stand-up comic David momentarily bereft of his wife; old Elvy has finally buried her husband, a dead man walking for years, and finds herself not entirely pleased at his return; while Elvy's granddaughter Flora has a reaction all her own to her granddad's surprise ressurection.

So does Lindqvist's second novel do for zombies what Let the Right One In did for vampires? Well, it clearly means to. Herein Lindqvist posits a characteristically restrained interpretation of traditional zombie fiction - which is to say the gruesome horde Geroge A. Romero popularised - similar to that which worked so well in his game-changer of a debut. The left of field premise driving Handling the Undead is a fine one, resonant with potential, and the ciphers through which he spins his yarn are by and large up to the task. Lindqvist evokes an atmosphere near enough the equal of the chilly urban tower blocks in which Oskar and Eli fell for one another.

Handling the Undead is however a much less focused narrative than that which the author made his mark. Perhaps necessarily so: this is, after all, a chronicle of a city-wide uprising rather than the diary of an introvert. Yet because of that shift in scale, from the granular to the grand, Handling the Undead lacks the intimacy of Let the Right One In, lacks in certain respects the sense of humanity which helped to make Lindqvist's debut so much more than the sum of its parts. Nor is this a particularly long novel, and yet in its middle third it drags interminably, a fish out of water floudering for a purpose.

That said, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with patience and a passing interest in genre fiction. For all its faults, Handling the Undead has a saving grace more pertinent in the overall than any of its minor missteps: channeled via the very capable hands of Henning Mankell translator Ebba Segerberg, Lindqvist's craftsmanship is a joy to behold. From the wood of his words he's carved a frivolous thing - sad but true - but he works with such care and precision, such finesse and attention to detail, that it's difficult not to stand in appreciation of Handling the Undead.

A flawed and surprisingly overlong sophomore effort, then, a novel if not game-changing approach to the zombie sub-genre, easier to admire than it is to enjoy, still Handling the Undead is set apart from the pack. When Lindqvist gets around to doing for ghosts what he's done for vampires and tried to do for zombies, let's just hope he's learned not to bite off more than he can chew.


Handling the Undead
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

UK Publication: September 2009, Quercus Publishing
US Publication: September 2010, Thomas Dunne Books

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