HARBOUR (Quercus tpb, 528pp, £9.99) is the second book I’ve read by John Ajvide Lindqvist (after Handling the Undead back in 2010, and you can find my thoughts on that work here) and the first book I read in 2019 (followed by two more by Lindqvist that, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be discussing over on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com next week). I picked up a copy of the book in Poundland.
The setting of the book is the island of Domarö in the Stockholm archipelago. Anders and his wife take their six year old daughter across the frozen sea to the lighthouse, but while they are distracted Maja disappears. Two years later, his life in ruins, an alcoholic and abandoned by his wife, Anders returns to Domarö and is haunted by the idea that his daughter is close by and trying to contact him. This is but one of the many strange things occurring on Domarö, which has a rather chequered history, one that hints at an unnatural relationship between the land, its inhabitants, and the surrounding water. With the help of his stepfather the illusionist Simon, who has certain special abilities, Anders sets out to uncover the mystery of the island and why those taken by the sea are now coming back.
This is an epic novel, one full of both horror and a sense of cosmic awe, but what makes it special is the attention paid to detail, the unhurried nature of the telling, with events revealed each in their own good time, back stories laid out in an almost leisurely manner, past and present interweaving. At its heart is the depiction of a small island community, one that has its secrets kept close to its chest, hidden from the prying eyes of those who come to Domarö as summer visitors, the necessary but resented outsiders. And as ever with Lindqvist, there is a wealth of characterisation to add verisimilitude to the narrative. The people live and breathe on the page, love and laugh together, interact with each other in ways that betoken their longstanding in the community, so that our belief in them is total, laying solid groundwork for what is to come.
The real thrust of the story though lies with the two main characters. Simon is in love with island matriarch Anna-Greta and the possible consummation of their relationship is one of the highlights of the narrative, though to the end each has things they keep back from the other. Simon’s back story is one of a doomed marriage and career that hit both highs and lows, and with hints of the miraculous in his life (well, actually, more than hints). Anders is an idyllically happy character as the book begins and in the flashbacks we have to his earlier life, but the loss of his daughter has come to overshadow everything else, and his belief that she is still present is what drives him to act as he does. To reach any sort of catharsis Anders needs to accept the true nature of his daughter, the reality of Maja as distinct from the saintly child he has enshrined in his memory. Lindqvist does not shirk from giving us heroes with feet of clay.
With historical interludes and aspects of the family saga about it, everything captured in Lindqvist’s lucid prose, the book powers on to its conclusion, deftly unveiling its terrors as we go. Among the minor chills and thrills woven into the main narrative is the idea of a woman who is possessed and through plastic surgery attempting to turn herself into a copy of who she actually is, and the Morrissey quoting ghost brothers who ride about the island on a moped. Each atrocity is painstakingly realised, given a necessary depth and history to make them seem real, and in part to elicit reader sympathy and/or understanding for what they are going through. And with the final sections an almost Lovecraftian horror is revealed, something ancient and monstrous and awe inspiring, an implacable entity that looks down on the humans who presume to share its living space, a creature that can never be understood or reasoned with, only placated on its own terms
This is an excellent novel, with an echo of King’s oeuvre in the telling though Lindqvist remains his own man. It is a book that is both horror story and visionary work, one that juxtaposes the ordinary and everyday with the cosmic, and does so with consummate skill. I loved it.