People who live by and earn their living from the sea are different from you and me. Islanders especially are a population literally and figuratively apart. The ocean is the ultimate bad boss, the epitome of the abusive relationship: capricious, temperamental, generous, greedy, dreamily delightful, vicious. Stories written by seasiders are a different breed. They know the fickleness of the natural world: What provides life and bounty can also become a force of destruction. Whether it’s the mystical expanse of the sea, or vast horizons of blinding snow, they understand what it is to have death perpetually murmuring on the doorstep. And the ocean is the ultimate metaphor for any novelist – that often placid surface, hiding any number of nasties underneath.
Combine these elements – ocean as monster, frozen landscape as antagonist – and you have John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor, which explores themes of loss, isolation, destruction and mortality (much as his Let the Right One In did). As a man whose own father drowned at sea, the writer has a stake in such exploration; you could see the book as his personal dirge.
One of the things Lindqvist does exceptionally well is create character-driven drama; his protagonists’ agonizing inner lives make for fascinating reading. In Harbor, we have Anders and his wife, Cecilia, who revisit the island of Domaro with their daughter, Maja, one winter day. Anders and Cecilia have fond memories of summers on the island (which has a checkered history) and even had their first kiss on one of its rocks. Anders’s grandmother, Anna-Greta, lives there year-round, as does Simon, Anna-Greta’s lover and a stage magician by trade.
Domaro, however, is more sinister than it initially appears, and things quickly go wrong. Temperamental Maja sets off alone over the frozen harbour to a nearby lighthouse and disappears under her parents’ noses as thoroughly as if she had been snatched by aliens. The loss of a child is possibly the most devastating thing anyone can experience, and it’s even worse when that loss is completely inexplicable. Maja has not fallen through the ice or been taken by another person; she is not hiding and she has not been killed. She is simply … gone. Even her footprints in the snow stop abruptly.
For Anders, the tragedy unhinges his entire life, leading to divorce, depression and excessive drinking. A few years later, he heads back to the island as a way to connect with the memory of his missing daughter, and, quite probably, to deliberately speed up his own decline. But again, things don’t go as expected. Domaro’s storied past of regular vanishings raises its ugly head, and peculiar events occur with increasing frequency. In fact, the occasional disappearance of a friend or family member is a kind of price the residents are willing to pay, so that the sea doesn’t take even more from them. But the sea is starting to return its captives: Apparitions, the dead inhabiting the living, acts of violence and lethal tricks abound. Whatever pact was made in the past is now coming unravelled.
But this doesn’t deter Anders, who begins to experience a wild hope – that perhaps Maja isn’t dead, but simply elsewhere – so he could get her back. But first he must crack the islanders’ reserve toward mainlanders. If he can, he stands a chance of finding out what’s really been happening on Domaro since time out of mind, and can find his daughter in a kind of reimagining of the Orpheus myth or Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen: the rescue of a loved one from a cold underworld where nothing changes and there is no such thing as love.
Harbor operates like a relentless tide or gathering storm, with brief respites via forays into past history of both characters and Domaro itself. Lindqvist frequently touches on subjects other writers ignore, which is part of what makes him so good; for example, the idea that that people over 70 have wants, hopes and dreams, and even sex lives. He doesn’t portray them as “magical seniors” or Gandalf stand-ins, there to provide protection and information. He also touches on the horribleness of children in an unsentimental way. Because, truthfully, some kids are just … well, awful. One criticism: Despite its length, Harbor seems to end too abruptly. One wishes Lindqvist – who is so good at showing us the terrible repercussions of his characters’ choices – would have shown us the aftermath of the denouement. How does a person (and the rest of the world) cope with clear evidence of supernatural manifestation?
Still, Lindqvist has given us a chillingly lovely, thoughtful horror story, full of the very things that scare many of us: missing children, unfathomable deeps, real magic. Harbor becomes a kind of elegy, not just to Lindqvist’s own father, but to the stormy ocean of childhood and the past.
Sandra Kasturi is a Toronto writer, editor and publisher, and author of The Animal Bridegroom.