by John Ajvide Lindqvist
416 pages, Thomas Dunne Books
Review by S.P. Miskowski
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Old Dreams Die was first published in Sweden several years ago. Recently translated into English and published by Thomas Dunne Books, the collection includes twelve stories, two of them sequels to Lindqvist novels.
"The Border" is an eerie and beautifully paced tale of self-discovery about a customs officer with an infallible knack for spotting smugglers. Physically and psychically scarred by a natural disaster during childhood, Tina has constructed a life of convenience, if not happiness, with a live-in friend. One day Tina encounters a strange traveler and experiences all the sensations that usually indicate she’s caught someone breaking the law. In this case, however, the traveler has nothing to declare. Tina’s mistake leads to an obsession with the traveler, who turns out to know a good deal about Tina and her mysterious origins.
In "A Village in the Sky," a lonely apartment dweller begins to notice slight changes to his home. First the building appears to list to one side. Then his neighbors stop answering their doors. At night, the lights in various units form odd patterns.
The narrator of "Equinox" composes crossword puzzles for magazines. Working from home, despite her family obligations she has plenty of time to housesit for vacationing neighbors. This is when her weird streak emerges. She enjoys rummaging through people’s homes while they’re away. She likes it so much that she begins to visit a deserted house, where she stumbles upon something quite horrible. Or is she less stable than she has led us to believe?
These three stories and "Paper Walls," a brief memoir of a terrifying moment in childhood, drew me immediately and inexorably into the lives of the characters. Lindqvist relies upon realistic, specific details to establish the every day world, and then begins to glide almost imperceptibly toward something very peculiar. In some cases, Lindqvist’s characters succumb to mental instability; in others, they find their actions reverberate in a different dimension and return to cause havoc.
Of the remaining stories, the most daring and original is the titular, final one. The others, including "Itsy Bitsy," about a delusional paparazzo, and "The Substitute," about former classmates who may or may not have brushed elbows with an inhuman entity, depend less on plot and more on mood. "Majken," in which working class women strike out against wealth and commercialism, strikes a more heavy, socially conscious note than anything else in the collection.
Never mind. Any quibbles with the mid-section of the book are answered by "Let the Old Dreams Die." Considering how much I like Let the Right One In, the brilliant vampire novel that made Lindqvist’s reputation, my refusal to skip forward to the last story is a tribute to my self-control. Or was I just afraid to see what the author might do with Eli and Oskar after they fled the Swedish suburb of Blackeberg?
The tale begins, "I want to tell you about a great love." But instead of picking up where we left off with Eli and Oskar, the narrator recounts the devoted marriage of train conductor Stefan and police officer Karin, a relationship the narrator refers to as "a miracle." It is the kind of passion–deep, unabashed, undiminished by time–the narrator himself hopes for but never finds. In the end he has to be content with being a friend and a witness to great love.
Brilliantly, the author has avoided a typical "where are they now" sequel. Stefan, Karin, and the narrator turn out to be tangential characters to the horrific events of Let the Right One In. We move forward with them, from the 1980s to the more recent past, when age and infirmity begin to take their toll. The narrator describes how his friends face looming mortality and grief, weaving into their love story an ongoing search for information about Eli and Oskar. It’s a masterful ode to love, offered by a lonely man. The events of the novel and the story intertwine in a deeper and more bittersweet depiction of the classic themes of romantic love and immortality. This is a satisfying end to a good collection, honoring the novel in its setting and its spirit.
Note: For review purposes I received an advance copy of the novel from the publisher.
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