Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ice and Cracks

Beartown by Fredrik Backman


Except for hockey, there's almost nothing left in Beartown, and it is only going to get worse, unless something changes. That something could be coming this year, since their junior team is finally good enough. If they succeed, who knows what that fame could bring? Maybe even a new hockey academy. Unfortunately, after the junior team won the semi-finals, something happened that changed everything, for both the team and the town. Now they have to deal with the harder question, which is, did this change Beartown for the worse or for the better? 

I have absolutely no interest in most sports (well, except when the Cubs won the World Series), and novels surrounding sports are usually ones for me to avoid. However, I did read Backman's novel "Britt-Marie Was Here" despite the focus on soccer. Although I'm no more interested in soccer than I was before I read that book, as most of my readers know, I adored that book. This is because what Backman did when he wrote that story is similar to what he did here, he wrote about people who are passionate about something, and how that fills their lives. Through their enthusiasm, we quickly realize that it can sometimes help them focus to the point of obsession, while at the same time it can also blind them. In this way, even when Backman goes into the details of the team playing their all-important game, we realize that this story isn't only about hockey; it is a metaphor to investigate the flawed human condition. 

One quote from this novel that's already showing up in the PR is "Never trust people who don't have something in their lives that they love beyond reason." Of course, this is technically referring to hockey, but I'm thinking that it's practically the theme of this book. By this, I mean that the enormous love for the various things that Backman shows us in this novel (hockey, family, a town, etc.) don't always make them trustworthy, they can sometimes make them reckless, which can also be damaging. Despite this, when your love for something is beyond reason, that passion also gives you the type of inner strength that can help you survive any damage caused by reckless actions. The balancing act that Backman plays between the positive and negative results of such obsessions is what I found pervasive throughout this novel, and what made it so amazing. 

That's just one reason to love this book, but there are many more. Another reason is how Backman succeeds in portraying this unusually large group of characters so vividly, blemishes and all. This was particularly important to me since I often get confused when there are too many characters to keep track of. Yet here, Backman's deep and intimate understanding of the people he's placed in Beartown practically forced him to give every one of them a distinctive tenor and cadence to their voices. This will lead readers to care for these characters as deeply as Backman obviously does, which in turn will lead to some laughter as well as no small amount of tears. There's also Backman's deceptively simple literary style of writing, within which he strews sparks of wisdom, traces of poetry and as already noted, flashes of humor.

However, one of the most artistic reasons to admire this book is Backman's pacing. Consider this - the opening line of this book is "Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there." You cannot deny how incredible that opening line is, and then he immediately begins to slide carefully upwards towards the climax, using a very subtle incline. Then, when he gets to the climax, it's like watching a small explosion go off. From then on, his narrative takes on a somewhat blurry, disconnected, almost remote quality, which colors the book's whole atmosphere from that point. To me, it felt like he went from a conventional solid narrative, to one that you could compare to describing shattered glass (or shards of ice, if you will). That felt like yet another metaphor for how the climactic event traumatized the whole town as well as the individuals involved. One mechanic that Backman employed to emphasize this was in how instead of using the characters' names, he referred to them using general nouns (a boy, the girl, a woman, the man, etc.). That could have confused me, but by the time Backman made this switch, I knew these characters so well that I instinctively knew whom he was talking about; which I think was pure genius.

As you can tell, I absolutely adored this book. However, some readers might be less than thrilled with the detailed descriptions of the hockey games in the first part of this book. I would understand if they felt this slows down the story, and I have to admit that I too rushed through some of those parts. Despite that, once I got to the climax and the rest of the story fanned out in front of me, I understood the importance of those parts of the story to the overall novel. In other words, Backman proved to me yet again, what an astonishingly wonderful master storyteller he is (as if I didn't know that already)! Obviously, I can't give it less than a full five stars. 


"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman published by Atria Books, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books* (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

* NOTE: this book is also marketed under the title "The Scandal," which will be available  in August 2017. 

You can find my reviews of Fredrik Backman's other works here: