Reviews: L

Review: “Harbour” by John Ajvide Lindqvist [2008]; translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy [2010]

If anybody were to write a horror story about the ocean (yes, you read it right), John Ajvide Lindqvist is the man to do it. The third of Lindqvist’s novels to be translated into English, the other two being the now well known Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, Harbour follows Lindqvist’s rather unique take on the horror genre.

On the isolated island of Domarö, Anders takes his family to visit the lighthouse. His wife, Cecilia, are childhood sweethearts having spent their summer holidays at Domarö since their youth. Their six year-old daughter, Maja, is a fireball of energy and set in her own ways.

The narrative is split largely between Anders and his step grandfather, Simon, a retired magician. Simon and Anders’ grandmother, Anna-Greta, have been together for the past fifty years although they still live separately with Simon living in the garden’s summer house. Simon and Anna-Greta reside on the island all year round and are considered ‘natives’ although Simon moved to Domarö in his early thirties.

On the way to the lighthouse, Simon is watching the little family from his house. The trio are impossible to miss due to their bright coats against the stark white bareness of the icy landscape. As Simon is observing them, a neighbour suggests that Simon ring Anders and tell them to turn away.

‘I think you should ring him and tell him … he ought to come home now.’

‘Why?

‘The ice can be unsafe out there.’

Simon snorted. ‘But it’s half a metre thick right across the bay!’

Elof sighed even more deeply and studied the pattern on the carpet. Then he did something unexpected. He raised his head, looked Simon straight in the eyes and said, ‘Do as I say. Ring the boy. And tell  him to gather up his family. And go home.’ – p. 19

The warning does not come in vain. Later that afternoon, while the family rests at the top of the lighthouse in the viewing room, Maja runs off to explore the place. She is never seen again. Although an extensive search is carried out, Maja has left no prints and the snow around the lighthouse is pristine save for the set leading to the lighthouse. Devastated, Anders and Cecilia leave Domarö

Two years later, Anders returns after Cecilia leaves him unable to cope any longer with his alcoholism and inability to seek help for his despair at losing Maja. Returning to the Shack where his family last resided, Anders strongly feels Maja’s presence and it both unsettles and comforts him. Anders also finds the camera he used on that fateful day and decides to develop the roll of film. In the last photos of Maja, Anders discovers that Maja is persistently staring at the same spot in the distance and he recalls the conversation he had with Maja while they were both in the lighthouse’s viewing room:

Maja was standing with her nose and hands pressed against the glass wall. When she heard Anders coming, she pointed out across the ice, towards the north-east.

‘Daddy, what’s that?’

Anders screwed his eyes up against the brightness and looked out over the ice. He couldn’t see anything apart from the white covering, and far away on the horizon just a hint of Ledinge archipelago.

‘What do you mean?’

Maja pointed. ‘There. On the ice.’ – p. 22

As Anders investigates further, he discovers that Maja isn’t the first to disappear completely without a trace. The town’s natives also have an unexplained fear of the sea although one of the main industry is herring. There is a strange hold over the island and an unlikely source of fear and power is revealed, harking back to the history of the island.

Harbour is another great read by Lindqvist although at 500 pages, it could have done with a good edit. The use of various narrative strings also tended to detract from the main story although it did help fill in the background and help streamline the jumping time line. The story is creepy but Lindqvist, like his previous novels, marries the unnatural, supernatural and reality seamlessly.

Review: “Handling the Undead” by John Ajvide Lindqvist [2005]; translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg [2009]

‘It was the spirits,’ she said. ‘The souls of the dead. They have been let out.’ – p. 43

The second novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the first being the very popular vampire tale Let the Right One In, Lindqvist shows that the horror genre can still be reinvented. Handling the Undead is set in Stockholm, 2002, and there is a strangeness in the air. An uncommon heat wave have persisted and Stockholm residents have all been plagued by a constant and painful headache. Lights and all technical appliances won’t turn off and those who try to pull the plug from the socket gets a nasty shock. When it reaches the climax, the headaches are blindingly painful, the heat suffocating and appliances with a life of their own, everything suddenly stops. And those who had died during the past two months begins to show signs of life.

There are several independent stories weaved through the book. Before the tension in the air breaks, David gets a call from the hospital telling him that his wife, Eva, has been killed in a road accident after hitting an Elk. At the hospital, Eva, or ‘Eva’, comes alive again.

Mahler, an ex-journalist, has spent the past two months looking after his bereft daughter, Anna, after the accidental death of her six-year-old son and Mahler’s beloved grandson, Elias. Mahler, when he realises that the dead is rising, rushes to the cemetery and digs out Elias who is, as expected, physically much changed.

Flora, a rebellious sixteen-year-old, shares a close bond with her grandmother Elvy, who is a dedicated Christian. Both women share a telepathic connection and a sixth sense. Elvy believes that with the rise of the dead, it must mean the Resurrection is coming.

As the dead continues to rise, the government is quick to act. Rather than treating the situation as bizarre, they respond with rationality. The army is sent to the cemeteries to start digging up the recently deceased. Hospitals attempt to isolate the ‘reliving’, as they are called, partly as preventative measures in case of infectious diseases and partly because of scientific curiousity and alarm. It is soon discovered that when they are in close proximity with the reliving, the living unintentionally can read everybody’s thoughts. Curiously, the reliving also become highly sensitive to the living’s thoughts and mirror them. If the living near them is thinking aggressive thoughts, the reliving becomes highly aggressive. If the living is calm, then the reliving remains docile.

Handling the Undead is a smart and intriguing read. Despite being designated the ‘horror’ label, I didn’t think it read like a horror novel (with zombies aside) and without a cliche in sight. The handling of the undead by Stockholm mimicked a medical and scientific breakthrough rather than  the end of the world. The ideas of love and relationship, especially between that of a child and parent, are explored. There are also undertones of political and social criticisms on the state of Stockholm which were interesting. A strange and quite sobering read questioning what we would actually do if our beloveds really rose from their graves and back into our arms again.

Review: “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” by Ariel Levy [2005]

There is no denying that raunch is everywhere in our culture today. Music videos, advertisements and even children products are more often than not targeted as ‘sexy’ because, let’s face it, sex sells. In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy explores and discusses how this culture has risen and how the second-wave feminist struggle has appropriated into the war cry that sex and stripping now means liberalisation for women. Levy writes:

This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes.  – p. 4

But have women actually come so far as to not be objectified? Levy asks herself:

And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star – a woman whose job is to imitate arousal in the first place – going to render us sexually liberated? – p. 4

[Strippers] are merely sexual personae, erotic dollies from the land of make-believe. In their performances, which is the only capacity in which we see these women we so fetishize, they don’t even speak … they have no ideas, no feelings, no political beliefs, no relationships, no past, no future, no humanity. – p. 196

How has stripping, imitating sexually explicit poses and flashing their breasts in public or for the camera render women ‘sexually liberated’? Are they still not being objectified as sexual objects by men? Levy sets out to ascertain why the raunch culture is so appealing to women, particularly young, educated women and more concerning, young teenage girls, some as young as twelve, who strive to embody the raunch culture by wearing make-up and snapping g-strings at boys. Levy discovers that raunch and sexual appeal have become separated from the act of sex itself. These young girls understand acting and dressing sexily is what gets attention from boys but they do not understand the act of sex and its pleasures.

Raunch culture, then, isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a litmus test of female uptightness. – p. 40

In the book, Levy also details the history and battles of the second-wave feminist movement and key activists. Women have finally broken through the barriers and have presumably gained gender equality. The problem is, as Levy suggests, that women are still not free to act as ‘women’ or as themselves but they are now pressured to act as ‘men’ so they will be included and considered as one of the boys. Levy discusses women like Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter and the CEO of Playboy, and  Sheila Nevins, a high profile and formidable veteran producer for HBO. They see no problems with producing media that promotes and encourages female raunch. Women either have to ‘get with the program’ or risk looking prudish and uptight to both other men and women.

… the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP) has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality, and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why throw your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving – or getting – a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them? – p. 93

The female chauvinist pigs are women who consider themselves apart from their less raunchy sisters,

a new sort of loophole woman who is ‘not like other women’, who is instead ‘like a man’. – p. 96

And there lies the problem. Who is this invisible, ideal man that everybody strives to emulate? And are women actually liberated when all it seems is that they are still struggling to be accepted as themselves? Why aren’t the men concerning themselves that if they don’t flash their genitals, women might not find them sexy and think them prudish? The FCP is not limited to heterosexual women and Levy discusses how the lesbian community have appeared to have taken similar heterosexual gender roles such as butches, femmes and bois.

Female Chauvinist Pigs is a slim but thorough and interesting volume and Levy ties in the current, past and alternative cultures nicely although it is very American-centric. The raunch culture have appeared to stabilised since the book was published in 2005 but, having said that, strippers, gyrating dancers, porn stars and Paris Hilton are still figures that many young girls and women look up to. Women still find it hard to find their own independent voice, particularly if they work in male dominated and cut-throat worlds. To succeed, they ultimately have to become ‘one of the boys’ or otherwise come across as uptight.

Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson; translated from Swedish by Reg Keeland

Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.

dragonThese statistics about violence and brutality against women sets the tone of the trilogy’s theme and are preludes to each section. In fact, the original Swedish title is Men who Hate Women. The first in the Millennium trilogy, this is one ripper of a book. The two central characters are introduced: Mickael Blomkvist, an independent and high profile journalist who is also co-owner of the Millennium magazine and Lisbeth Salander, a punky, anti-social, rather ruthless and resourceful genius hacker. And yes, it is Salander with the titular dragon tattoo.

Blomkvist and Salander have their own independent storyline until their paths meet much further into the book. Blomkvist finds himself in a disgraced position and takes a sabbatical when he is offered a one year contract by old Henrick Vangar to write a biography on the immensely wealthy and noted Vangar family. This is a cover for Blomkvist who is primarily there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vangar, the beloved granddaughter of the elder Henrik. The case has haunted Henrik for over 35 years since Harriet’s disappearance one eventful day in the 1960s. Henrik is adamant that she had been murdered by one the numerous members of the Vangar family, a mix of eccentrics, manipulative and dangerous people although the body has never been found.

And so Blomkvist moves to the relatively isolated Hedeby Island where the the majority of the Vangar family lives to try and solve the cold case. It is this section of the novel that becomes very reminiscent of Agatha Christie: an improbable murder, very little clues, impossible environment, a huge cast of suspects and an isolated scene of murder.

The twists in the plot are incredible and one can’t help but think if this is the sort of mysteries Agatha Christie would write if she was alive today. I’ll repeat my assessment of the book – “It’s like Agatha Christie on steroids and crystal meth”. The plot is unique but very very disturbing and rather violent and sheds quite a new light on the clean cut image of Sweden. Blomkvist and Salander are two quite unique characters, particularly Salander, although Blomkvist do at times appear to be the typical heroic journalist. One slight criticism of the novel would be that the ending ties up a little too neatly.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes you on one hell of a ride. While I suspect that some things are probably lost in translation, it is still one ripping read. It’s quite a tragedy that Larsson died before he could see the success of his books and also without the opportunity to write more.