Reviewed by Dominic Hinde in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
After a sizeable break, John Ajvide Lindqvist is back with a novel that stylistically and conceptually represents a move beyond his tales of suburban horror. Himmelstrand lacks the tension and the gore of his previous novels and is instead an experiment in existential writing that makes capital out of the absence of the city and its dark corners. The action in Himmelstrand takes place almost entirely in a non-space, a vista without end of clipped grass meeting a blue, sunless sky. The grass smells faintly of blood, and, appearing from nowhere, white figures take on the forms of the unquiet dead. In the nominal middle of this endless plane are a group of unhappy campers, who wake up one morning to find themselves transplanted from a treelined campsite to a place never fully described or explained. The confused newcomers trying to find a way home include a disillusioned former footballer, two dairy farmers with a close friendship, an uncanny small girl who knows too much and a Star Wars-obsessed boy with a light-sabre fantasy.
What sets Himmelstrand apart is Ajvide Lindqvist’s refusal to explain what is actually happening. Instead it falls to the characters to develop their logical thinking and find a way out while dimly realising that there is little sense in any of it, and what first appears as purgatory is in fact an empty, godless place with no heaven waiting beyond. The rain burns, vampires, looking like zombies, prey on ghosts, looking like people, and a tiger created from memories stalks the plains. The GPS systems in cars indicate the same place as ever and, eventually, the campers are reduced to putting pegs in the ground to mark out their new homes – for sanity’s sake. Literature students will write essays for years to come about the spatial symbolism in this novel. Its aesthetic is drawn from the early 1990s computer games, in which limitless circular vistas trap the player who strays too far and make him circle the map; the colour palette is taken straight from a 64-bit gaming console. The end of the book involves all of the characters fading to black in their different ways, some as winners and some as losers.
The inconclusive narrative in Himmelstrand has led some Swedish critics to argue that it is not as complete as his previous books, but by moving to such a radically new setting, Ajvide Lindqvist has written a disarming and deeply disturbing book with a steady undercurrent of discomfort and dread. The filmic Technicolor of the imagined non-place in which he deposits his characters is already halfway to a screen adaption that would write itself. It is a book big on aesthetics and low on storytelling – but that is no bad thing given the strength of the concept itself.