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Bloody celebrity.

December 7, 2011

So I’ve been on holiday (cunningly disguised as PhD research leave) for a month, and while I was away I read—shock!—only one book. This despite the fact that I brought my eReader with me and was very smug about how I would have so many books to choose from when I was overseas, and none of them would take up any space in my suitcase. And which book did I read? A real one–a 500-page tome that I insisted on bringing with me even though it swelled my hand luggage to elephantine proportions. Nothing beats a real book, even when it turns your already loaded handbag into a mobile shoulder-injuring device. 

Anyway, the book. The dark side of celebrity is a theme that offers rich fictional pickings, particularly in today’s fame-obsessed culture. Little Star, the latest macabre work from Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, takes the idea further than most writers would dare, blending teenage angst and gruesome violence with a provocative exploration of modern celebrity. 

Although Little Star is the first of Lindqvist’s novels not to feature anything supernatural, fans of his work—which includes the acclaimed Let the Right One In, an inspired take on the vampire myth that spawned two film adaptations—won’t be disappointed. Lindqvist’s dark imagination is in full flight here, and for all its lack of otherworldly beings, Little Star is infused with a creepy, dream-like feel; it’s a kind of dark modern fairytale.

The novel begins in 1992, when washed-up former pop star Lennart discovers an abandoned baby in the woods. Of course, it’s no ordinary baby—when this tiny blue-eyed creature opens her mouth to cry, she emits a pitch-perfect note, ‘an E that rang like a bell and made the leaves quiver and the birds fly up from the trees.’ Convinced that his discovery of the child is a chance for him to redeem the disappointment of his life and career, Lennart takes her home, and—much to the chagrin of his wife, Laila, and the suspicion of his son, Jerry—keeps her in the basement and names her Little One.

Raised in isolation, Little One—later christened Theres by Jerry, who regards her as his sister—embodies Lennart’s dream of nurturing ‘the unspoilt music’ that he believes exists inside everyone before they get ‘force-fed crap from an early age’ and come to believe that ‘crap was all there was.’ Lennart tells Little One that the Big People—those who live in the outside world—are intent on killing her, and she must live in hiding for her own safety.

But Lennart’s lies backfire, and Theres’s fear of what lies beyond the basement solidifies into a misguided and violent quest for self-preservation. When Jerry becomes her guardian and attempts to introduce her to the outside world, the damage is already done. When fifteen-year-old Theres enters an X-Factor-style TV singing contest, Idol, and crosses paths with Teresa, an isolated and misunderstood teenage misfit, the stage is set—literally—for a bloodbath.

Lindqvist is at his best when he explores the dark side of being an outsider, the brilliance of his horror lies in its curious reversal. It’s never the monsters, be they vampires, zombies, or angry teenage girls, who are the real threat, but the society that spurns or creates them.

Theres and Teresa, for all their violent urges and chilling lack of emotion, are strangely sympathetic characters. Despite their wildly different backgrounds (Teresa might be unhappy and misunderstood, but at least she wasn’t raised in a basement), neither stands a chance of ever fitting in, and their rebellion feels almost justified. Particularly poignant is Lindqvist’s portrayal of Theres’s exploitation at the hands of the modern music industry, and the backlash against her place in the Idol finals despite her incredible voice—celebrity is not about talent, but a certain star quality that Theres, with her curious lack of emotion, fails to embody.

But Little Star misses the mark ever so slightly. Although Lindqvist’s concept is daring and his writing (translated by Marlaine Delargy) strong, the novel’s pace drags. The bloody finale is hinted at in the opening pages, but Lindqvist spends too much time taking us back to it—he explores the girls’ lives at excessive length, rather belabouring his point about their alienation.

While the novel’s eventual pay-off is impressively gruesome, I found some of the violence in the book a little too over the top—it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. While I appreciate that feeling unsettled and repulsed is part of what makes Little Star—and Lindqvist’s probable point about the dubious nature of modern celebrity—so effective, there’s only so much drilling a person can read about before it starts to become tiresome.    

Still, this remains a clever and imaginative tale, and its chilling originality is testament to Lindqvist’s prowess as a writer. I’m no aficionado of contemporary horror fiction, but I’m convinced that Lindqvist has to be one of its most talented and inventive practitioners. Little Star might be a couple of hundred pages too long, but it remains a darkly compelling read. One thing is for sure—after picking up this book, you’ll never listen to Abba’s Thank You For the Music the same way again. 

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