Fredrik Backman has become one of my auto-read authors. I haven’t read A Man Called Ove yet, (gasp! I know and I intend to rectify that soon), but I loved Britt-Marie Was Here and more recently, his novella And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. I find his characters fascinating, his writing brilliant and his plots drawn from reality, but with a touch of the whimsical. I expected much of the same from his latest Beartown.
I was so wrong, and yet I was so right! Beartown is very different in tone from all is other books, and is a much more serious read. It has none of the whimsy, but all of the very human emotions that characterize Backman’s work. I would go so far as to say that Beartown is, according to me, his best work so far.
On the surface, it seemed to me to have similarities to Britt-Marie Was Here. Like Britt-Marie, the book is set in a small town on it’s last legs, grasping for survival. The only hope in both cases are the sports teams–soccer in Britt-Marie and hockey, in Beartown. And that is where the similarity ends.
Where the sports in Britt-Marie is used as a force for good, for team building and positivity, hockey in Beartown becomes the seed-bed for a toxic culture that leads to a reprehensible act of rape. However, as a character points out in the book, it is not hockey that is to blame. Rape is the fault of the rapist, always. However, the book does discuss how the air of toxic masculinity and sexism around a sport can make the people around it blind to the faults of “boys who will be boys.”
Let me begin then with a content warnings for rape, violent and misogynistic language, rape jokes, homomisia and suicidal ideation. There is a pretty detailed description of a rape scene from the POV of the person being raped and this may be triggering.
The book opens with the intriguing line that one March evening, one teenager puts a shotgun to another teenager’s head and pulls the trigger, and that this book is the story of how we get there. It does not tell us yet, who pulled the trigger and who was at shot at and what happens after. Instead it jumps back in time, to introduce us to the main characters- Kevin, the star of the hockey team; The Andersson family consisting of Peter-the manager of the hockey team, Kira, his wife, who is a lawyer, Maya their 15 year old daughter, and Leo, their 12 year old son. Other important characters are Amat, a poor Muslim boy with a prodigious talent for hockey and who is in love with Maya, Ana who is Maya’s best friend and Benji, Kevin’s best friend, who is in the closet.
The first 30% of the book, was just set up as we are introduced to these and other characters and the stage is set for the events to follow. It is after this 30% mark that the book really picks up and hurtles towards what feels like an inevitable tragedy, even as the reader imagines the worst, and hopes for the words to be different.
Unfortunately, it is tragedy that we get. Kevin rapes Maya at an after-party post their semi-final win.
At this point the book becomes an excellent commentary on rape culture –how people choose sides, choosing to blame the victim, the “boys will be boys” excuse, “locker room talk”, “hearing both sides of the story”, and all those phrases that we hear thrown about in the newspapers when a rape occurs in real life. I will say again that all this may be triggering for someone who has lived through such an experience. I myself, found it very difficult to read, and was devastated by it. It is absolutely not an easy read at all. We speak so often about rape culture, and Backman’s book is a harsh reminder of how it is born and how it grows.
The book also explores the ideas of family, friendship, community and the fragile bonds that hold them together. Backman, as always excels at getting the reader into the skin of the characters, allowing us to think and feel as they do. There is a diverse cast of characters as one can already surmise from the description of the plot above, and Backman treats each character with respect.
While most of the book made me weep with sadness and anger, at the end Backman left me with tears of joy and hope. Beartown is undeniably one of the best books of 2017, and I urge everyone (who will not be triggered) to go read it. It will leave you with a crater in your heart.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have you read A Man Called Ove or any other books by this author? Let me know to the comments!
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.