Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist; translated to English by Ebba Segerberg
Published: Thomas Dunne Books (2007); an imprint of St. Martin's Press; originally published in Sweden (2004)
It's fair to assume you have not read a vampire novel quite like this one before. And if you have, let me know.
Actually, it might be a little misleading to call this strictly a vampire novel because this isn't a vampire's story, but a story of a young tormented boy who meets and ultimately befriends a vampire--a young girl named Eli.
Set in early 80s Sweden, nestled in a dreary apartment complex in Blackeberg, we're introduced to Oskar. The kid has a rough existence. His parents are divorced, he has no friends to speak of, and his hobby is shoplifting. And he's the constant recipient of bullying from some real bastard classmates at school. On top of that, a killer has emerged in the city, dubbed the Ritual Killer. The only bright spot in Oskar's life comes from meeting a strange young girl who lives in the apartment across from him. Eli only comes out at night and appears to be living in poverty with a creepy man named Håkan.
The novel follows Oskar's in the fall of 1981. While the adults are either worrying about the Ritual Killer or a Russian nuclear sub off the coast of Sweden, Oskar becomes fascinated by Eli. She's uninterested in him at first, but a friendship of sorts blossoms between the two. The tell-tale signs of her true nature aren't stamped out in bold, but are apparent to any reader, while Oskar only finds her as puzzling as the Rubik's Cube he shares with her--a toy she is ignorant of but very adept at.
Beyond Oskar's story, Lindqvist delves into the lives of supporting characters. There's Håkan, the man with whom Eli lives. He's the Ritual Killer the authorities are looking for, but the killings aren't ritual but procurement for Eli's thirst. While questions loom about Eli's true nature and the danger she may pose to Oskar, there is no doubt of how depraved and dangerous Håkan is to everyone around him ... especially the young.
There's also Tommy, a teen with a penchant for sniffing glue and acts of vandalism. His mother's relationship with a police officer only further strains Tommy's emotions further, especially as the police go on the hunt for the Ritual Killer and Tommy seems to have trouble deciding who to root for.
If that's not enough, we're given a glimpse into the lives of Lacke and Virginia. Two middle-aged drunks engaged in a bleak love affair wind up having their lives turned upside-down following the disappearance of a friend, only to further suffer when one of them falls victim to a bloody attack.
I expected a rather intimate story of a boy and a girl with this novel. And while I got that, I got a lot more with the diverging storylines dedicated to the other characters. There were moments when those subplots distracted me from Oskar's tale, which I was engrossed in the whole way through, but as the story reaches its end I appreciated how they each offered their own texture to the main story. I still feel a couple of moments were disjointed from the main story, but it's forgivable since I really got sucked into the novel from cover to cover.
Oddly enough, Eli's character is explored very little by comparison. She becomes a fully formed character by the end, but when so much time is spent on secondary characters like Tommy and Lacke, I have to wonder if a few more scenes from Eli's perspective could have enriched the novel even more. Still, realizing who she is through the eyes of Oskar and Håkan is satisfactory.
I think any fan of horror or vampire literature would be doing themselves a favor by reading this novel. Or watch the film adaptation, which I hope to do someday. I'm not sure what to expect from the impending American remake, but the Swedish film has been given nothing but praise. That praise is well founded given the source material was such a great read. It was depressing at times, and downright uncomfortable during specific scenes--Håkan's metamorphasis from one kind of killer into another is especially disturbing--but the book is too good to ignore.