Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rare book review: Harbor

My rare book reviews are becoming not so rare anymore.  You haven't heard from me in while because I have been trying to finish John Ajvide Lindqvist's massive Harbor.  Lindqvist is the author of Let the right one in and Handling the Undead.  He is the hottest export from Sweden since Stieg Larsson (by the way, I just saw David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Is is horrible to admit I liked it better than the Swedish version?  I did.  A couple of reasons.  Although she annoys me, Rooney Mara does an excellent job as Lisbeth.  You really believe she may be psychotic.  I also loved the score but that has more to do with me being totally obsessed with Trent Reznor than anything else.  Finally, the opening credit sequence is bananas!) 

Confession. I read Let the right one in, but I never read Handling the Undead, which I hear is very good.  I only have Let the right one in to compare Harbor to.  And that is tough, because in my humble opinion, Let the right one in is a masterpiece.  Harbor, not so much.

Things start well.  Our hero, Anders, grew up on the island of Domaro.  Most people on the island, including his father, earned their living from the sea.  As an adult Anders returns to his father's cottage with his wife Cecilia and his precocious 6 year old daughter Maja.  During a visit to the lighthouse, Maja disappears, never to be found.  The tragedy destroys Anders and Cecilia's marriage and turns him into a not so functioning alcoholic.

A few years later, Anders returns to Domaro.  He is haunted by the memory of his daughter.  Soon, he becomes haunted by something much more sinister.  Trying to help Anders is Simon, his Grandmother's boyfriend.  Simon is a former magician who settled on the island.  Simon harbors a few secrets himself, not the least of which is a slimy slug that he keeps in a matchbox in his pocket.  This slug, called the "spiritus", needs Simon's saliva to survive.  It also controls water, which is a handy trick on an island. 

Simon and Anders discover that everyone keeps secrets on this island, and little Maja is not the first to disappear.  Anders begins a quest to find his daughter, whom he believes is another prisoner of Domaro.

Lindqvist has been called Sweden's Stephen King.  I didn't see the connection when I read Let the right one in, but I do with Harbor.  Like King, Lindqvist is a master of communicating a sense of place, not only geographical (although at the end of this book I felt I could navigate Domaro with no problem) but a sense of place with people.  As King does with so many of his novels, Lindqvist really creates a world that you feel you grew up in.  You get to know every character, and how the land they grew up on shaped who they became.  I welcomed every flashback, as it gave me a better sense of Domaro and the fascinating characters that inhabit it.

The sea is as much a character here as the island and its inhabitants.  The sea gives life and prosperity, but it also demands an unthinkable toll.  Reading Harbor I was not only reminded of King, but of H.P. Lovecraft and his Old Ones.  There is evil lurking in the sea, and it is not until the end that is shows itself.  It has the same respect for humans as Lovecraft's Gods do. 

So where does Harbor go wrong?  It sounds pretty good so far, right?  I get the feeling that Lindqvist lost interest about halfway through the book.  The ideas are interesting but the execution is lacking.  I hate to say it but I didn't quite understand the ending.  I had to go back and reread the last 30 pages just to make sure I didn't miss anything.   There is no emotional payoff, and the characters themselves don't even seem to be too interested in what has occurred.  My favorite character, Simon, gets pushed to the side and Anders just starts to piss me off.  At the end I really didn't care whether or not he found Maja.  I was so disappointed that a book I really enjoyed for the first 300 pages turned into such a disapointment. 

I am am looking forward to Lindqvist's next book.  He is an excellent writer.  I just hope the next one ends as well as this one began.  Now I am going to watch Let the right one in, which I did enjoy much more than the American remake.  Why don't you enjoy the opening credits for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

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