Having seen both films, I wanted to read the book to fully flesh out the story and see if there was anything missing from either the Swedish language version or the American remake. Most probably already know the story but if you don’t, let me sum it up. It tells the story of Oskar, a schoolboy who lives in rural Sweden. He’s an introvert and is the target for the school bullies. His life is turned upside down when in the sleepy little village nearby, a boy of his age is brutally killed and hung from a tree. Convinced he was somehow responsible after fantasising about killing a bully, Oskar is about to find out the truth.
The day after the brutal killing, he is confronted by a curious young girl while he is out playing all by himself. She is as intrigued by him as he is with her. They are – as you would expect between kids of that age – cold with one another. The next time they see each other, they are a little more cordial and so on. The young girl lives with a strange middle aged man named Håkan with some demons of his own. He keeps telling her “I can’t do this any more” to which she keeps insisting that he must because she isn’t strong enough yet. They also keep expressing love for one another but this is not what it seems…
These events are related and if you have read the book you will know that she is a vampire. Håkan is not her father, but her Familiar and he has been with her for a few years since she rescued him as an adult. He simply cannot do it any more. He cannot kill for her any more and he falls into desperate self-destruction while Oskar’s “romance” with Eli blossoms. There is a stark contrast here between the Håkan of the film and the main in the book. In the film, he has been with her since he was a child. Here, he joined her as an adult and grows attached to her in a toxic cycle of dependency. Nor does he have the same tragic ending as the film versions.
It is well written, engaging and the characters are deeply sympathetic. This story is about love. Not romance, but love. Sure, there are some hints of the tropes of the rom com or the saccharine love story, it is ultimately about the sacrifices we make for the ones we love and the sacrifices we make for that love – and perhaps even the sacrifices we make as we see that love begin to run out.
There is a lot here that will speak to those who know what a harrowing break-up feels like too. In that, this is a beautiful story despite the violence and despite the sometimes difficult subject matter, handling some taboos effectively without turning gratuitous or glorifying it – but let me emphasise that it is difficult to read because of them. Håkan’s relationship with Eli for example makes for uncomfortable reading most of the time. Scandinavian literature is a relative newcomer into the translated fiction market but if it is all this good, then I want more.