Harbor by John Ajvide Lindqvist – review

By on October 21, 2013


Any small, isolated population will have its secrets.  The more isolated and the smaller that population is, the more secrets there seem to be.  They have their groups, those that are respected and admired and those that never have quite fit in with everyone else.  Not all of those misfits have somewhere else to go, so they live amongst the familiar people who treat them badly and go on with their lives.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor is about one of those populations. The Swedish island of Domaro serves as a summer home for seasonal visitors.  There are a few steady residents who live there year round.  They have known each other all their lives.  Then, there is Anders, whose father is one of the residents and whose mother lives on the mainland. He stays on the island for longer periods than his summer friends but doesn’t quite stay the entire year.  He meets Cecilia, they marry, and they have a daughter, Maja. Anders and his wife become permanent residents of the island, living in a house his grandfather built known as The Shack.

On a snowy winter day, Anders and Cecilia take Maja to the local lighthouse on a tiny island. They spend some time exploring and Maja goes outside on her own.  Anders glances away for only a moment and then, Maja is gone without a trace. As the villagers help with the search, the mystery deepens. Maja has left no footprints. There are no signs that the sea ice had weakened. No one can find  her. Worse yet, Maja’s disappearance is just the latest of many such strange vanishings to take place on the island.

Anders progresses through a steady downward spiral fueled by alcoholism.  The daughter he has lost becomes the focus of his world as he struggles to understand what happened and why.  As he tries to come to grips with his daughter’s apparent death, strange things begin occurring in The Shack, a house as poorly designed as it is poorly built.  As Anders gropes for understanding, he begins to uncover secrets and slowly he starts to realize that every permanent resident of the island knows much more than they’ve ever let on.

So much modern horror relies heavily on splattery shock value.  Not all of it, of course, but the ones that don’t seem to be getting fewer and farther between. Even the ghosts in horror fiction seem to be getting more and more prone to spraying gore across various scenery.  So much of my favorite horror pieces do more with atmosphere, preying not only on readers’ expectations but on those little common things that happen all the time and are so frequently easily dismissed as no big deal.  The best horror toys with coincidence until all probability of rational explanation is buried under an avalanche of evidence to the contrary.

Harbor has immediately found itself a place on my ideal shelf of horror novels.  The initial shock of Maja’s disappearance gives way to mystical encounters, sinister backstories, and secrets kept by young and old alike. The entire story is flavored with a local mythology that feels rich, despite the fact that it comprises only a small portion of the actual book. The past plays an important role in the events surrounding Anders and his family, but the story isn’t mired in it.  The pieces supplied by the author are wholly relevant, even if their significance takes several chapters to unfold.

Horror always carries that burden of social commentary, whether the author intends it or not. Harbor is also a prolonged meditation on how we treat those who don’t fit in and how we deal with grief.  When someone dies, it becomes disrespectful to speak ill of the dead, at least in polite society.  A population as tiny as that on the island of Domaro thrives on being polite. If they weren’t, there would be no way that they could live together.

Anders is devastated and unraveling steadily.  He turns to alcohol as a coping mechanism, and  Lindqvist uses that to keep the reader steadily guessing how much of what is going on is simply hallucination fueled by too much wine, too little sleep, and a newfound tendency towards drinking a distillation of wormwood.  Anders isn’t quite unreliable as a protagonist; the things going on in his world just aren’t entirely clear. No one is more aware of that than Anders himself.

His family, his grandmother Anna-Greta, who is very much a leader of the community, and her partner, Simon, are sympathetic and concerned. They want to help Anders but are at a loss as to how.  They do what they can, even as they deal with their own sense of loss.  Simon used to work as a magician and started as a summer visitor who became a permanent resident. He is still regarded as an outsider, despite how long he’s lived on the island.  Simon is conducting his own investigation into Maja’s disappearance, and the knowledge he discovers and shares with Anders changes everything.

Harbor is claustrophobic and insular.  There is so little geography for the story to take place, yet the book never feels restricted.  Horror is a state of mind, after all, and as the plot unfolds, the creeping unsettling feeling of something being very wrong grows.  The signs that things are not right on the island start off almost imperceptible.  They grow steadily more obvious until even Anders can no longer insist it’s simple drunkenness.

I do find myself annoyed that Lindqvist keeps getting referenced as Sweden’s Stephen King because both authors happen to write horror. They write entirely different kinds of horror.  With King’s work, it’s more about characters and plot. There’s a driving momentum through his stories that propel the reader relentlessly through the story. Lindqvist is more subtle.  He is a master of atmosphere.  King keeps readers off-balance. Lindqvist picks the readers’ sense of reality apart thread by carefully pulled thread.

There are books that make me want to read them so much that after a few pages, they just start living in my pocket.  I cart them everywhere with me until I finally reach the last page.  Harbor left me itching to go to breaks and to lunch and to wait for the bus in anticipation of continuing where I left off so I could find out what happened next.  This is not shocking horror. It’s definitely the kind of book that I would recommend for adults and more mature older teens. It’s sad and disturbing and unsettling, but it’s satisfying.

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