Review: “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman


I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a pretty fast reader. As a kid, when I used to drag my parents to bookstores, I would often finish a book in the time it took them to buy me more books. A pitfall of my speedy reading is that I sometimes miss the small pleasures that come from the “non-important” parts of the story. Ever since I started blogging, I would like to believe that I have become a more mindful reader. Thankfully, that didn’t manage to put a significant dent in my reading speed. Till I put my hands on Beartown.

Today, I’m participating in my third Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. My first time around, I stayed up for the entire duration and finished 7 books. The next time, I was overconfident and fell asleep around Hour 4. This time, I was all set with a list of nine books. But 10 hours in, I just finished my first book and I am not feeling the slightest twinge of regret. Because Beartown is so brilliant that I wanted to savor every single sentence of it, competitive reading be damned.

As an author, Fredrik Backman has this talent of crafting an intricate novel about human nature revolving around characters that might otherwise come across as mundane. I read A Man Called Ove before it was a New York Times bestseller and the source material of an Oscar-winning film. The protagonist was this gnarly, antisocial curmudgeon that people went out of their way to avoid. But by the time I finished the book, I was completely in love with him. I mourned the passing of his beloved wife and I cheered when he found a new “family” in an evolving Sweden.

Anybody who reads Beartown will also find themselves rooting for its characters, a hard feat to achieve since the book has over ten protagonists. Mr Backman has surpassed himself because he manages to get the reader to care not just for its characters, but the entire town as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean every single character is likable. But the reader comes away with an in-depth understanding of what motivates every single person in Beartown. Though much darker than Mr Backman’s other works, Beartown is undoubtedly his magnum opus.

Beartown is the story of an isolated Swedish town at the edge of the woods that is slowly but surely dying. The residents believe that there is only way to save their home: a national victory for their local ice hockey team, that will bring much-needed investment  and publicity to revitalize the area.

To that end, the entire community pins their hopes and dreams on Kevin, the star player. But when a rape accusation by one of their own, on the day of their big game, leaves the team floundering, things take a dark and menacing turn. The book is full of scenes that bring a tear to one’s eye, or make the reader scream with outrage or chuckle at Mr Backman’s sharp and darkly comic insights. The events that unfold are told from the perspective of different characters, adding layer upon layer to this maze of a novel.

There is another noteworthy and unusual technique used by Backman: repetition, but not for repetition’s sake. Various phrases, sayings, even sounds, when repeated skillfully offer new, dazzling interpretations at different points in the story. The character that’s speaking at that particular moment or the sequence of events unfolding then and there are what colour these phrases, thus creating a looping narrative that continually draws the readers in and makes them feel the full implications of what’s going on. The narrative continually emboldens the heavy, darker tone of the novel which, while not as light as his previous novels (though none of Mr Backman’s works can truly be considered light), still preserves its basic human-ness and even persevering, uplifting spirit.

Lastly, for me, Beartown was an outstanding story for its shrewd observations on how society deals with rape allegations, especially in the context of sportsmen and teenagers. I wish I could pepper this entire review with the quotes I highlighted while reading the book, but that would result in around half of the book being reproduced here. Beartown is a must-read for anyone who loves a good, smart and yet touching story.

 I was provided an Advance Reading Copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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.