Remember when I said I was going to Galveston and I had packed three books to read? Guess what? Didn’t read a one of them. You see, as I was heading out the door, my dear friend John stops by, hands me John Ajvide Lindqvist’s book Let The Right One In (St. Martin’s, 2004) and says, “Read this.” He goes on to rave about the book as I load the car. I am barely listening. I’ve already packed three books. If I hadn’t locked the front door, I would have left his book behind and read the ones I selected for the trip. The ones I never read because as soon as I got to Galvestion and dug my feet in the sand, I cracked open Let the Right One In and barely looked up for three days.
Now the trick as a writer when you are reading a book so riveting that you cannot put it down, is to figure how the author is putting the spell on you. It’s not magic. It’s craft. At one point, I told someone that reading this book was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, up close, where you can see each person’s face in the window, hear their screams and their bodies smashing against seats and windows, even see their skin get cut and bleed.
How did he do it? How did Lindqvist make me (not a fan of horror/thriller genre) keep reading until 466th page?
First the plot: Twelve year old Oskar lives in Blackberg (a suburb of Stockholm) with his divorced mother. Just as a series of ritual like murders begin to happen in the neighborhood, a girl named Eli moves into Oskar’s apartment complex. As the story unfolds, we learn Oskar is bullied at school and afraid to fight back. He doesn’t tell his mother (or his absent father). Instead, he goes to the playground by his apartment complex and stabs trees. That’s where he meets Eli and the two begin a friendship. Even when Oskar learns that Eli is a vampire and a boy, Oskar does not stop loving and protecting her/him. Nor does Eli abandon Oskar. In this blood splattered setting where adults are lost to their own misery, Lindqvist creates a tender relationship between these two twelve year olds.
His choice of point of view. The reader is not trapped inside one character’s mind with first person POV. Nor is the reader distanced by omniscient POV. No, Lindqvist uses limited third and chooses several different characters’ points of view (Oskar, Eli’s guardien, a teenage boy who lives in the apartment complex, two different police officers, a few adult characters whose lives are touched by the murders). The result is a beautifully entangled web around this community and the events that happen over a three week period.
Theme- Writers don’t talk much about theme because I think theme emerges after a book is written. If we focus on the theme of the book while we are writing it, we might veer away from the hearts of our characters. I doubt Lindqvist thought much about theme while he was writing this book. No, he stayed true to each character’s heart. But what emerges is a very tender story about love, about when we let the right one in, we are understood and protected and loved. Each character, each relationship sheds light on another facet of that theme.
Which brings me to the next bit of craft that helped to hold me spellbound: economy of words and action. Even though, this novel is 466 pages, there is no wasted space and there isn’t a lot of exposition or telling. Lindqvist builds the world of his story through a series of scenes that hang suspended from the main spine of the story. They catch light and cast shadows and weave in and out of one another like a great mobile. All of what Lindqvist includes in the action is essential. The knife the Oskar steals in the beginning of the novel to stab trees as a way to play-act revenge on the bullies is the same knife he cuts his hand to make a blood pact with Eli and finds out that she/he is a vampire who licks his drops of blood from the floor to resist biting Oskar. No action or object is wasted.
Likeable characters. Yes, it is a dark book peopled with characters who know misery or lead miserable lives. But Lindqvist fractures each of them with light. In short, each character is human. We know and understand the reason for their dark impulses. They resonate as true and we care about them in their fallibility. Even the boys who bully Oskar. Lindqvist gives us a glimpse into their backstory so they are not two dimensional. Instead, we know them. They haunt us because they seem real.
After I finished the book, I looked up Lindqvist. This was his debut novel. He was a juggler and street performer on the streets of Stockholm before he wrote this book at age 36. He has written five since. Amazing.
Two movies (Swedish and American) were made from the book. I watched both. Both were very good and worth watching. But if you’re a writer, read the book first.