A man finds a baby in the woods, left for dead. He brings the baby home. The man’s son, Jerry, teaches the child music. Deciding he can’t let the girl’s uncommonly beautiful voice go unheard, Jerry enters her in a singing competition. Miles away another young girl sees the performance on television. When the two girls meet, a terrible force is ignited that catapults this duo to a top spot in the horror Hall of Fame.
Last year I decided I needed to man up (woman up?) and get over my wussiness regarding horror. One of the books I read in that pursuit was John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Harbor. To my utter surprise I loved it. Yes, it was scary, yes it was utterly, dreadfully creepy, but I loved it to pieces. At the time, Little Star had already been released in the UK – I had read the US edition – and from some of the reviews I’d already read and some conversations on Twitter, I knew that at some point I really wanted to read this book. Imagine my excitement when I received an ARC for the American edition in the mail earlier this year! Since I always try to put up reviews close to their publication dates – and the past months have been busy for various reasons – I put off reading the book until last week, when I finally dove in to the strange and twisted tale Lindqvist has spun in Little Star. It was everything it was promised to be and more.
Lindqvist doesn’t rely on gore to make his tale horrific; he gets there by masterfully displaying the deepest and darkest foibles of human nature. In the case of Little Star, there is nothing quite as scary as the mind of a teenage girl – oh lord, grant me strength in ten years time! – and Lindqvist plumbs the depths of said teenage psyche to great effect, playing off a completely strange and unrelatable teen girl against one that is eerily familiar if taken to the extreme limits of plausibility. This contrast between the two storylines in roughly the first half of the book is created with consummate skill and one has to look closely to see the seeds that the author plants in them; seeds that he’ll later use to entwine two to a whole that only amplifies the horror of the situation and left me feeling powerless because the reader can’t intervene in Teresa’s descent into madness, even if she might recognise the signs of what is going on with her.
The titular Little Star is Theres. She’s a fascinating and contradictory character; how can you not sympathise with an abandoned baby – an innocent, discarded – found and raised in captivity and isolation in a situation reminiscent, but quite different, of that of Natascha Kampusch and Elizabeth Fritzl? At the same time there is something off about Theres, or Little One as she’s called for much of her early life, from the beginning, and it’s hard to put a finger on what that is and on whether it’s inherent to her genetic makeup or created by the way she is brought up and the lies she’s been told by Lennart to keep her in line. I loved the way she transforms herself into something resembling a guru to this tribe of teenage girls, by empowering them in the most frightening of ways, by indoctrinating them to the way of thinking she’s been taught by Lennart and the experiences of her early life.
If Theres is alien to the human experience, Teresa is all too familiar with it. As such, Teresa’s journey in the book is the scarier of the two. She starts out a seemingly normal child. One that asks somewhat strange questions, but children are wont to ask the weirdest and sometimes deepest questions out of the blue. Still, she seems normal, if shy, until puberty and then her slow descent begins. It starts with her best friend moving away, just as she reaches the cusp of puberty and her body starts changing. These changes are unkind to her to say the least – Teresa turns into a bit of an ugly duckling it seems – and combined with the loss of her best friend and the move to secondary school, it serves to isolate her and make her the prime target for the class bullies. What makes Teresa’s story scary is that it’s so believable, it’s easy to see how a young girl could get so isolated and depressed at that age—we hear or read about teenagers like that all the time. It’s also easy to imagine the kind of idolising devotion Theres inspires in Teresa; one has only to think of the screaming girls at any given Bieber concert to prove the point. I connected more to Teresa than I did to Theres, as Theres was too other to comfortably form an attachment too, and I kept hoping against hope that she’d come to her senses and see what was happening to her.
Throughout the novel Theres personifies control. Despite everything, she is in control of first Laila and Lennart, the people who keep her, by dint of their fascination with her vocal gift and later of Jerry, her ‘adoptive’ brother, who feels a kinship and love for her he hasn’t felt for anyone else. Ultimately she controls Teresa and their pack of girls by giving them a sense of control over their emotions and their lives, a sense which is ultimately an illusion. Lindqvist plays with Theres’ apparent and real positions of power; for most of the novel she seems submissive and powerless, even if she is subconsciously pulling everyone’s strings. She exudes a weird sense of fascination, enthralling everyone who comes into her sphere.
At the close of Little Star two questions remained for me: what happens to Jerry and why was Theres dumped as an infant? Was she inherently flawed, even evil, and did her upbringing just (re)enforce this or was she made into what she was by the way she was treated from infancy? It’s the age-old discussion on nature versus nurture and once again, inevitably, we are left without the answer. In the end, I think I prefer not knowing Jerry’s fate and the truth behind the mystery of Theres’ nature; it leaves us the space to hope–hope for a happy ending for Jerry and hope that Theres wasn’t just a product of her upbringing, that there has to be a crack for abuse to shatter someone’s humanity so completely. Little Star leaves us with plenty of gristle to chew over and Lindqvist’s tale will haunt me for a while longer. I think I can now also safely say that Lindqvist has single-handedly cured me of my horror of Horror. Little Star is another stunning novel and Lindqvist is truly a name to be reckoned with in his field and beyond.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.