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Black Static


The Late Review: I Am Behind You

23rd Jan, 2020

Author: Peter Tennant

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Having started the week with a review of a short story collection by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist we'll carry on the good work with some love for his 2014 novel I AM BEHIND YOU (riverrun hc, 4066pp, £18.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy and first published in the UK in 2017 by an imprint of Quercus Editions.

There are four caravans and four couples, two with children (a boy and a girl) and two with pets (a cat and a dog). These people wake in the middle of the night to find that they have been taken from their campsite and put down somewhere else, a flat and featureless landscape that they cannot escape no matter how far they drive. There are the inevitable personality clashes, with tensions running high and plans formulated to survive, each using whatever resources they have at their disposal. But as the nightmare continues they come to suspect, as does the reader, that they are where they are because of actions taken in the past, and the longer they remain the more minatory and surreal events become, with fiery visions witnessed and bizarre acts taking place.

The story is told from shifting viewpoints, with every character given a turn behind the mic and even the cat and dog allowed a voice. As characters go, these are very different people, their solid grounding in reality and the discord between them a great part of what makes the book work so well. There is ex-footballer Peter, model come trophy wife Isabelle, and their daughter Molly, who seems to know rather more than the others about what is going on, and is creepy enough to make Wednesday Addams seem positively affable by comparison. There are farmers Olof and Lennart, two lifelong friends on holiday together after being abandoned by their wives. There is shopkeeper Stefan and his wife Carina, their son Emil, who is only too easily dominated by the weird Molly. There's the loutish Donald and his wife Majvor, who has visions of James Stewart. We get to know these people intimately, learn of the things that scare them and the dreams to which they aspire, visit the past enshrined in their memories and see all their dirty little secrets, the things that possibly brought them to this pass. And, like the reader, the dog and cat look on, providing a neutral perspective on what the humans get up to, keeping whatever they know to themselves.

This is, apparently, the first book in a trilogy, which possibly explains the lack of any real closure at the end, but even if that were not the case, if this was all that Lindqvist has to offer us, it would be enough.  As a book of conjoined character studies alone it would be a compelling work, one that holds the attention from first word to last, with Lindqvist's quiet, confident prose drawing the reader on and into the world of his story, setting us up for the moments when the mask is ripped away and we stare at stark, unreasoning terror. And there are many such moments here, in both past and present, scenes to make the reader sit up and pay attention, moments of gore and moments that defy belief, for reader as well as whichever character is experiencing these things at the time. There are aspects of the surreal and psychodrama in the book, each informing the other and driving the story along, and perhaps an element of the metafictional, at least in the opening and closing sections, though that may simply be sleight of hand style misdirection on the part of the author. Hints of vampires and zombies too, and the sense that there is some grand, overarching design, one that the reader can sense but not quite put a finger on, though perhaps there is a clue in the title. What is behind you? The past, and it appears to be past events that shape the formless future of these people, but perhaps fragments of Lindqvist's earlier books also, as if this is the confluence, the place where all stories blend together.

I am of course waffling. I don't really know what ultimately this book is about, but I do know that I was thoroughly immersed in its world, that I want to get my hands on the next instalments of this putative trilogy and read them all. There is a certain feeling of authenticity about I Am Behind You, a suspicion engendered in the reader that the creator is putting more of himself into the work than is normally the case, that something greater than a story is being laid out on the page. On this evidence, Lindqvist is one of the most original and assured writers currently at work in the fields of the weird, and whatever he does next will be worth seeking out.



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