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  • Writer's pictureErin Snedeker

2 reviews: "A Man Called Ove" and "Beartown" by Fredrik Backman

“Anyway, this is the story. Thank you for taking the time to read it. With love, Fredrik Backman.”

These are the final words in a foreword Backman wrote for his short story “The Deal of a Lifetime.” I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, as it was a Christmas gift and I have had a few busy months, but I have read the foreword. I’ve read the foreword a few times, so struck was I by his final words.

Here, take the story as it is, and thank you for reading it.

I’ve only recently acquainted myself with Backman’s novels, first with his majorly successful A Man Called Ove and not long after with Beartown. What struck me the most about these carefully crafted stories was the emotional resonance that he was able to evoke from me, even though I don’t share the same experiences of the characters. I am not a widower, like Ove, nor have I suffered through the traumatic events that bring Beartown to its knees.

In A Man Called Ove we follow the curmudgeonly widower through his multiple failed suicide attempts, and his strange encounters with his lively, quirky neighbors. I felt his hollowness as he looked around his empty house and still saw the traces of his wife everywhere: the photos, her coat hanging by the door. And I urged him on when he found himself, almost in spite of himself, helping his neighbors: the lovestruck teenager, the young family recently moved in, the old friend who became his nemesis. As cliche as it might sound, Ove learns the wonderful and heartbreaking lesson that life does and will go on even when we feel like giving up, even when we think that the thing that made life worth living is gone.

It’s not a perfect novel, Ove acts far older at times than the 59 years that Backman assigned him (a common complaint among other reviews). Would a 59 year old really not know what an iPad is? Even in a small town? But it is a minor detail.

Backman’s handling of suicide is something else that I consider to be problematic. While he is never disrespectful in his writing of Ove’s attempts, I do not believe he gives these scenes the weight that they deserve, and I wonder how those scenes are received by someone who has encountered suicide either through the death of a loved one or through a battle with mental illness.

“Anyway, this is the story. Thank you for taking the time to read it. With love, Fredrik Backman.”

Backman doesn’t have these problems in Beartown. I can very clearly see the maturity and mastery in this later work. In this novel, we have the same lyrical writing style that gently, warmly invites the reader in. However, while A Man Called Ove focuses solely on the Ove, Beartown is crammed full with a town’s worth of characters, each with problems, dreams, and opinions of their own. (This might seem rather obvious, but bear with me--pun intended).

In A Man Called Ove, Backman plays with time to evoke emotional resonance, slowly disclosing moments in Ove’s life and positioning them in the novel to squeeze the most emotion from the scene as possible. In Beartown, the novel centers around a few events: the victory of the boy’s semifinal hockey match, and the rape of a teenage girl by the team captain, told through the eyes of several characters to gain a complete snapshot of the town.

In a chilling passage, Backman describes what happens in the town when word of the rape gets out:

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe--comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her (Backman 273).

I read this novel just after the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and this passage both bit into me and comforted me. Bit into me because of the accuracy with which Backman described the dehumanization of a victim of sexual violence--something that we see all too often in the age of the internet. And comforted me to know, as a young woman, that there are men who will speak with clarity against such acts even when a few noisy people try to drown them out, to dehumanize, and to deny.

I don't know much about Backman personally, but what I have gleaned from these novels is that he approaches his characters and his stories with compassion, and I think, with love. Love for the characters, love for the writing, love for the stories, and love for the people who will read them.

“Anyway, this is the story. Thank you for taking the time to read it. With love, Fredrik Backman.”

As artists, and as human beings, could we hope for anything else? Here, I made this poem, this song, this painting, this story. I offer it to you, with love. Thank you.

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