California Literary Review

Book Review: Harbor by John Ajvide Lindqvist


October 10th, 2011 at 10:15 am

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Harbor by John Ajvide Lindqvist
by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Thomas Dunne Books, 512 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

A Place Where Nobody Goes:
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Oceanic Horror

Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist has made more than a slight impression on horror fans, beginning with his fresh look at the modern vampire narrative in his (2004) novel Let the Right One In. In his third novel, Harbor, Lindqvist’s subject is neither vampires nor zombies (as in his second work, Handling the Undead) but something arguably both banal and extraordinary: the ocean. Lindqvist’s newest effort reads like an elegant spin on H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of mind-bendingly old and hulking antagonists—at once legion and amorphous—threatening to devour from below.

Throughout Harbor, we are reminded over and over again of the relative newness of the Swedish archipelago where the story is set. In one of the opening scenes, two characters—a boy and girl, recent sweethearts—discuss the geological oddities of the island formation. The boy remembers his father explaining that the human settlement of the island, which to the children seems natural and permanent, is actually brand new. For ages before humans built their fragile structures and took up permanent or seasonal residency on Domarö, the island had been underwater. It belonged to the sea. And it still does. Humans are but temporary interlopers. Contemplating the relative age of the place, Anders, the story’s ostensible protagonist, becomes dizzy:

Now he could see. How new everything was. It had only been here for a short time. Their island, the ground on which their houses sat, even the ancient wooden boathouses down in the harbour were just pieces of Lego on the primeval mountain. His stomach contracted as if he were about to faint, vertigo from gazing down into the depths of time. He wrapped his arms around his body and suddenly he felt completely alone in the world. His eyes sought the horizon and found no comfort there. It was silent and endless. (11)

Like Lovecraft, Lindqvist works within a subset of naturalist writing in which nature is not simply an indifferent setting but a forceful actor in the characters’ lives.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the world of Domarö and, more properly, the ocean where Domarö (temporarily, it seems) resides because this, rather than the embedded family trauma narrative, is the true subject of Harbor. In the scene after the one I quote above, which takes us several years into the future when that young couple has married and had a daughter, they are once again exploring the area of the island and its surroundings. The family takes a trip over the frozen sea to a lighthouse. While there, the 6 year-old daughter, Maja, vanishes without a trace. Her small footsteps lead away from the lighthouse over the snow and ice, then vanish. This loss of their child drives the couple apart, and the father descends into alcoholism and depression. In his unrelenting despondency, he is unable to rid himself of the notion that his daughter is out there, somewhere, and he returns to the island to find her or possibly to drink himself to death trying. Though Lindqvist devotes a large chunk of his novel to Anders, his familial struggles and ambivalence still come off as rather perfunctory in the service of the grander, more interesting story of Domarö.

The narrative traces Anders’ steps as he cycles through stages of frantic searching and turbid morbidity, constantly wavering on a thin line between suicide and redemption. As he becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in the story of Domarö and its long-standing intrigue with its chthonic adversary, his own story unwinds on a parallel to the dark and compromised history of the island itself. As in Lovecraft’s tale of the denizens of Innsmouth, Domarö’s early residents bartered with the sea—human sacrifices in exchange for good fishing and financial prosperity. Such economics are hardly neutral, however, and over the years an intangible pall falls over the island and its inhabitants. Subsequent generations of islanders live in the aftermath of these transactions, which form a horror that binds them together in secrecy and silence. Outsiders, as seems inevitable in island narratives, are treated with suspicion and held at arm’s length. Invariably, this web of intrigue and insider trauma only grows thicker over time, and some of the characters are more deeply enmeshed than others.

The characters in Harbor struggle with the ocean at the same time that they are forced to acknowledge its primeval concatenation with their lives, their memories, their very bodies. Water, we are constantly reminded throughout the novel, is everywhere, all around us, and in us. To fight the sea is to fight oneself, in a way, to struggle against one’s origins and the source of life itself. But to give into the sea is to lose oneself utterly along with everything that makes one human. Lindqvist’s novel paints the world of Domarö with the novelist’s characteristic starkness and grace. The plot’s twists and turns seem at times the product of whimsical association rather than discernible logic, and the novel seems to suffer from an excess of plot. That is, this tome about the sea loses a bit of its effectiveness from needless complexity and long-windedness. The characters endure revelations and setbacks, decide one thing, then another, much as Anders manically vacillates between elation and despair. In a way, these vacillations capture the characters’ sometimes half-hearted attempts to grapple with nature in an ongoing struggle to free themselves from the stink and primitivism of our origins. In Harbor, the ocean calls us back.

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