I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist

September 7, 2017

Molly wakes her mother to go to the toilet. The campsite is strangely blank. The toilet block has gone. Everything else has gone too. This is a place with no sun. No god.

Just four families remain. Each has done something to bring them here – each denies they deserve it. Until they see what’s coming over the horizon, moving irrevocably towards them. Their worst mistake. Their darkest fear.

And for just one of them, their homecoming.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything you are familiar with is absent. Only a handful of other people remain. Like you, they have no idea what has happened. Is this change going to be permanent? What, if any, action should you take? How long would it be before that thin veneer of civility goes out the window and Darwinism kicks in? The latest novel from John Ajvide Lindqvist explores that premise. When there is nowhere else left to go, are you capable of confronting your innermost fears, accepting them and surviving?

I Am Behind You is an ensemble piece. The cross section of people left on the campsite feels like a tiny microcosm of society. The actions and reactions to their predicament as it evolves cover the full gamut of human emotions. Benny and Maud are two of my favourite characters. I’m not going to go into too much detail about them though. You need to discover them yourself. All I’ll say is their relationship starts off in a very straightforward fashion and then morphs into something far more complex. It’s not what I expected at all, I loved it. The other relationship I really enjoyed was between Olof and Lennart.  The two men, who have found one another later in life, have a contemplative attitude to every revelation they face. Each of their exchanges feel like a little island of happiness in a story that is unashamedly dark.

For a while now, I’ve believed John Ajvide Lindqvist’s work has a singular, very specific, quality to it. After much pondering, I think I have finally managed to pin down what it is. He is a master when it comes to describing the emotional intensity of any given situation. Anger, sadness, panic and joy are subtly captured and explored in all his novels. I think that skill stands any author in good stead when it comes to horror. I’m sure we can all agree that darkness, death and misery are always going to be emotive subjects. He is also very good at defying reader expectations. His horror novels never head off in the direction you expect them to. Lindquist’s earlier novel, Let the Right One In, is essentially a delicate bittersweet love story. Handling the Undead deals with zombies in the same uniquely thoughtful manner. I Am Behind You also touches upon similar themes. Almost without exception every character is somehow lost in their own life. They each have demons, sometimes real, sometimes imagined, that they are forced to confront. There are flashbacks that flesh out their backstories and help to explain how each of them have reached this pivotal moment in their respective lives.

Most of the horror falls firmly into the realms of the internal or psychological, so when something overtly bloody does happen it feels even more shocking. There were a couple of particularly startling moments that caught me completely off guard.  I’m always a little in awe when fiction manages to be genuinely unsettling without crossing the line into bad taste. This is where I think Lindqvist’s writing excels. Scenes can turn on their head in a single beat. One second there is an introspective stillness, and then the next shocking body horror or unexpected violence. It really elevates the experience of reading the novel, from chapter to chapter you genuinely don’t know what to expect next. It’s not often I finish reading a book and find myself still thinking about it many hours later. There are moments in the plot I found genuinely disturbing. I think my brain is still trying to process the shocks even now.

I Am Behind You is set to be the first book in a trilogy. I can’t wait to see where this goes next. Though the novel works as a standalone piece there are enough unanswered questions that I’ll be happy to come back for more of the same. I imagine this novel is going to be literary Marmite. Some readers are going to love it while others will find it incomprehensible and just a little too weird to appreciate. Should you have any doubt, I can confirm I fall firmly into the first category.

At times there is an ephemeral, almost dreamlike quality to this novel and I needed music that would tap into that same feeling. I’m going to recommend the self-titled debut album from A Winged Victory For The Sullen as an ideal match. Haunting and evocative music, it captures the tone of the novel perfectly.

For reference, this release is a translation from the original Swedish language version. Kudos to Marlaine Delargy, she has done a flawless job. I’m no expert when it comes to such things, but from my perspective I could not find fault it in any way. The narrative flows along beautifully without issue.

I Am Behind You is published by the new Quercus imprint riverrun and is available now. Highly recommended.

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