Alena likely is getting much attention thanks to the success of Let The Right One In. Clearly, both books have roots in the same Swedish formula: unrelentingly grim milieu in which ambivalent and bullied characters grapple with handling magical realism. Replace a vampire with a ghost and you have the idea. But we’ve seen this particular story many times and a distracting illustration style makes this less a sum of its parts.
Story: Josephine loved Alena but Alena regretted their night of exploration. When rejected Josephine takes her own life, Alena is left bereft. But she has earned a scholarship to an elite school – and garnered the attention of one of the handsomest boys there. But that boy’s ex girlfriend has an ax to grind – and Alena will be her target. As Josephine’s ghost haunts Alena and the bullying becomes extreme, Alena’s psyche begins to shatter.
Andersson’s illustrations have an almost fetishistic obsession with mouths that I found it hard to follow the story at times. In each panel, the mouth is huge and typically has something coming out of it – from drool streams to spit, vomit, juice dribbles, blood…. It’s in the mouth and not the eyes that Andersson finds his expression. It made the characters look like carnival caricatures with overexaggerated features. I had a hard time feeling for the gravity of the story when the illustration work was that cartoony.
The story itself was over the top. The mean girl was every cliche you’d expect but without the nuances in movies like Mean Girls. It reminded me of how boys see girls, without the vulnerability issues that underlay the viciousness. Alena’s nemesis, for example, is just petty. We don’t get any sense of her other than she is spoiled and mean. The rich boy love interest is, of course, too good to be true. It makes for cardboard characterizations.
Alena herself is passive. We’re to believe she’s capable of impulsive acts of violence but for most of the book she is very wishy washy. I couldn’t really see any grounded realism in any of her actions. Again, she felt like the cliche confused girl but we don’t get a sense of her inner conflict at all. It’s just, “she’s grieving, she’s angry, she’s bullied” and that is it.
I didn’t really enjoy Alena. It should have the subtlety of Let The Right One In but it doesn’t in plot or illustration work. The plot felt recycled and even the end ‘twist’ was underwhelming Plus, the distracting art pulled me further out of the story with its overemphasized facial features. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.