I absolutely loved Let the Right One In, Lindqvist’s brilliant, original and macabre first novel, which offered a new take on the well-beaten vampire story, so when I saw this one at my local op shop I grabbed it immediately. While I didn’t think that Harbour was quite as strong, it’s got some of the same haunting power and memorable imagery that made Let the Right One In unforgettable. Lindqvist’s been nicknamed a “Swedish Stephen King”, apparently, and I can see where the comparisons come from: he’s got the same ability to really dig into his characters’ disturbed psyche, and conjure the atmosphere of dread from the most mundane, everyday details – but with a more European sensibility of his own.
The novel is set on the fictional island of Domaro, on the outer reaches of the Stockholm archipelago, where there’s a distinct divide between the local population, mostly fishermen, and the holidayers from the city with their summer cottages. Anders, one of the island boys who married a girl from the city, comes back for a visit with his wife and Maja, their six-year-old daughter. It’s an ordinary visit, until the family goes for an outing to a local lighthouse and Maja disappears without a trace while outside on the ice. This tragic event shatters Anders’ marriage and nearly destroys his mind, until he decides to come back to Domaro since it’s the only place in the world that has any meaning for him.
I expected Anders to be the sole main protagonist of the novel, but the narration is in fact split between Anders and his kinda-grandfather Simon, who’s been together with Anders’ grandmother Anna-Greta, an unofficial leader for the island’s community, for 50 years. Simon is a retired stage magician who used to make his living escaping from chains underwater and suchlike, and soon after his appearance a first supernatural element of the story is introduced… which unlike the other supernatural elements in the book I found jarring and not a bit silly, to be honest. It didn’t ruin the book, but it never stopped being ridiculous either. Though Simon has lived on the island for decades, he remains an outsider, as he finds out when strange things begin to happen to the people of Domaro and the island’s dark past is slowly uncovered. It all comes back to the sea, and the terrible, malevolent force it exerts over the island and its people.
The island of Domaro is a character in itself, and the book takes its time to explore it, frequently jumping back and forward to tell stories about the island and the people, or delving into the characters’ backstories that shed light on the present-day events, all the while building up the feeling of creeping dread. This gives the book a rather meandering feel, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think what’s going to stay with me the most is the depiction of the sea as a huge, frightening, merciless entity that evokes pagan gods of old: an inhuman elemental force that cannot be tamed, that gives and takes as it pleases, that must be appeased and respected. It is a portrayal that is both chilling and deeply poetic. There’s also an unexpected twist later in the book which deals with the reshaping of memories and lies we tell ourselves in order to hold on to the idealised past. The ending of the book gets well and truly supernatural and imaginative, and if it’s ever made into a film it could make for some stunning visuals. My only major dissatisfaction is that the ending feels abrupt and doesn’t explore the truly interesting ethical dilemma – parent’s love for a child vs the greater good of larger community – as well as it could have, and it all ends with a bit of a dull thud.