Review: “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove

At first glance, Ove is just a Grumpy Old man with a Saab–a typical curmudgeon, not the type whose depths one is tempted to plumb. In fact, unless you like being scowled at, scolded, insulted, and having doors slammed in your face, you might just decide to avoid him altogether. He wouldn’t mind; the only person he wants to see is his wife, who died a while ago.

His best-laid plans to finally rejoin her get interrupted again and again and again. His new neighbours and their two daughters always seem to appear at the most inconvenient times, bringing him delicious food and demanding attention. His former best friend might have long ago become his worst enemy–their arguments about Saab vs Volvo reached epic proportions–but even Ove knows a man shouldn’t be so mistreated by “the men in white shirts” who think they know better than his wife about how best to care for him. The overfriendly, oversized computer genius from next door keeps bugging him when he’s out for his walk. And a near-frozen cat repeatedly chooses Ove to share the last of his nine lives. What’s a determined grouch to do?!

While he may seem like the bitter neighbour from hell, behind his rough exterior is a touching story that will show you the impact that one can have on many lives. Ove is a great, and utterly infuriating, comic character, and then when we delve into his past and see how a boy with a literal mind, a knack for engineering and a strong sense of duty became the man he is today, and see how he too was once loved simply for being himself, our resistance melts and Ove makes perfect sense.

A Man Called Ove–which made its blogger author a Swedish literary superstar in 2013–takes a wry look at modern Sweden, particularly the way its older, stodgier generations are coping with change. It’s a fascinating, hilarious and occasionally heartrending portrait. Buried sadness forms the story’s core, yet the writing is light and charming, the descriptions inventive. Asked what he’s doing in the garage, for instance, Ove answers “with a sound more or less like when you try to move a bathtub by dragging it across some tiles.”

The third-person narration has some quirky perspective shifts: Sometimes we’re inside Ove’s head, knowing and feeling what he knows and feels, but other times we sort of hover near his shoulders, watching him with authorial fondness. For the most part, though, watching Ove from any vantage point is an absolute pleasure.

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