NOTE: UPDATED IN JULY 2020 TO BE SPOILER FREE
Where do I even begin with Beartown? I mean, it’s a story centered around ice hockey, a game I know nothing about, or frankly care about. Yet, somehow, the story that Fredrik Backman weaves is such pure magic, that it’s easily become one of my favourite books ever.
The writing style of this book and the weighty subject matter is a departure from Fredrik Backman’s usual light-hearted touch, as seen in his earlier, wildly successful books – A Man Called Over, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, etc.
The story centers around a small hockey town, set in the back of beyond, somewhere in Sweden. Beartown is floundering and staring at rapidly worsening economic prospects (“Bears shit in the woods, and everyone shits on Beartown”).
The only thing that the inhabitants of this small town seem to care about, apart from their own survival, is ice hockey. It means the world and more to them.
“The only thing the sport gives us are moments. But what the hell is life, Peter, apart from moments?”
The townspeople have pinned their hopes on the junior team winning an important semi-final match and the eventual final match, which is what they see to be their only way out of their imminent decline.
Clearly, this places a lot of pressure on the shoulder of seventeen-year-old boys, and all the people attached to the game, directly or indirectly (which which turns out to be just about everyone in the small town). Fredrik Backman succeeds in conveying this atmosphere of pressure with just the right amount of drama, and despite the slightly languid writing style, the pace does not slacken.
The junior team players – seventeen-year-old boys – are treated like celebrities and they start behaving as though they’re invincible and that they can get away with anything. This sense of invincibility is displayed time and again in the course of the book. We see that early on in the way the team members behave with a teacher.
It is also this attitude that looms over the violent act that takes place, which then has a bearing on almost everyone – the accuser, the team, the people of the town, and the town itself.
Backman’s writing is extremely nuanced, and he treats the aftermath of the violent act with utmost sensitivity and the kind of care that it deserves. All sides of the story are well-presented, and he deftly weaves in the multiple voices without making it all seem like a cacophony.
Backman also does a terrific job of capturing the conflicts of being a working mother. As the wife of the junior team’s hockey coach, Kira is placed in a certain sort of limelight, and not one that she enjoys a lot. She struggles with all the extra attention as well as trying to balance between her family and her already compromised career.
“There’s a label she used to love but which she loathes when it’s pronounced in a Beartown accent: “career woman.” Peter’s friends call her that, some in admiration and some with distaste, but no one calls Peter a “career man.” It strikes a nerve because Kira recognizes that insinuation: you have a “job” so you can provide for your family, whereas a “career” is selfish. You have one of those for your own sake.”
To classify Beartown by Fredrik Backman as a sports fiction novel would be doing a massive disservice to the depth of the story. Sure, it deals with a hockey team in a floundering hockey town, but it goes so much beyond that.
It’s a story about parenthood, and the many burdens and responsibilities that come with it (“Being a parent makes you feel like a blanket that’s always too small. No matter how hard you try to cover everyone, there’s always someone who’s freezing.”).
It’s a story about devotion and friendship, and the power and heartbreak of it.
It’s a story about leadership, and underlines over and over again how leadership is not just about big words or motivational speeches, but rather about building trust and inculcating the right attitude in your team members.
Backman’s character development is absolutely top-notch. It’s not the lengthiest novel, and there are about 8-9 key characters/POVs, but by the end of the book, you know these characters well, their motivations, their fears, what drives them, what haunts them. The characters seem realistic – no one seems too good to be true. It is really the characters that make the book shine through and through.
The writing is simple, and yet so beautiful. The characters, even the ones with the slightest of roles, are written with such love and attention. The stand-out character for me is Maya, shouldering the burden of the violent act with strength and dignity. Amat is fairly unforgettable too… I loved the relationship that he has with his mother. It’s evident that he derives much power and strength of character from her.
“If you are honest people may deceive you. Be honest anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfishness. Be kind anyway. All the good you do today will be forgotten by others tomorrow. Do good anyway… What you create, others can destroy. Create anyway. Because in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and anyone else anyway.”
There are life lessons peppered aplenty throughout the book, and Backman manages to do that without coming across as preachy. The overall context and message of the book is highly relevant to our day and age – from the me too movement, to the impact of celebrity culture and idol worship, to peer pressure and homophobia.
“We love winners, even though they’re very rarely particularly likeable people. They’re almost always obsessive and selfish and inconsiderate. That doesn’t matter. We forgive them. We like them while they’re winning.”
Despite being a heavy read, Beartown is a book that will stay with me for a long time. It gave me all of the feels, and it had me engrossed from start to finish. I would go so far as to say that a book like this should be essential reading, not just for the overall brilliance of the writing, but also for the many messages that it beautifully conveys.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman is a resounding 5/5 for me, and it’s a book that I would recommend to almost everyone.
If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know what you think of it… let me know in the comments below!
Also, other books I’ve read recently.
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