Beartown (2016) – Fredrik Backman

Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Date published: 2016
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I will begin this piece by first stating that I am a huge fan of the work that has been coming out of Scandinavia recently. There are just so many authors that I have been introduced to in the last few years and my love for them will not be dying down anytime soon. The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (and then his predecessor after his untimely death, David Lagarcratz), and Peter Hoeg’s beautiful Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992) were my first introductions to the writings of the Swedish and Danish writers respectively. After that I discovered that I loved pretty much everything Jo Nesbo wrote, and became an overnight fan of the infamous Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgaard whose My Struggle series of novels are still keeping me captivated. I then read Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared(2009) and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (2013) and these were my first real foray into understanding the unique sense of humor that is apparently evident in Fredrik Backman’s other novels. I say ‘apparently’ because I have not (yet) read anything else by Backman other than Beartown (2016).

Now Beartown is not a ‘funny book’. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. This is definitely not an insult to one of the most amazing books I have ever read in my life. It is a big deal for me to make such a claim but it is very true. I can say with absolute surety that this story will remain with me for a very long time. I have known some writers to describe these kinds of experiences as ‘haunting’ and I guess that is indeed true of this one. This is a perfect example of the kind of writing that made me fall in love with reading novels from the beginning.

The most important thing to remember is that Beartown is a hockey town! Everyone that lives there knows this and it is this important fact that permeates every waking moment of every living person residing in that town. It is a fact that cannot be escaped, even if you wanted to. Ice Hockey is a fact that is acknowledged, and also taken for granted. Sometimes it reads as though hockey is a living, breathing organism with the ability to control the inhabitants of this small forest town. There are those that live for it, and there are those that merely tolerate it. Within this town there is also the usual distinction between the haves and have-nots, and both are guilty of either loving or tolerating the sport.

However this book is not just about hockey. It is about so much more than a competitive town on the brink of collapse and who’s every survival could be placed upon just one important hockey game. It is about the people that inhabit this cold space, and how hockey brings them together. It is also how hockey tears them apart. I think most of all though this is a novel about passion and what we are prepared to do to keep that which we love sacred, and safe.

It begins with the character of 15 year-old Maya sharing her mother’s wisdom that one should “never trust people who don’t have something in their lives that they love beyond all reason” (2018; 3). When I read this sentence I sat back, closed the book, closed my eyes and realised through my own experiences how very true this observation is. In my own life all the best things (and the worst) are those or that which is loved without any reason at all. There is simply no sense of practicality or convenience in the things we love, in the things we choose to do to to fill our time, the people we love, the possessions we covet. They are the very things that allow us to stand apart from the rest and they are ‘ours’ – our loves.

Apart from Maya we are also introduced to several other interesting characters including her father Peter, the General Manager of the Hockey Club, her voracious mother Kira who works as an attorney, David the new coach, Sune the old coach (and last remaining member of all that is pure about the game), Amat (the outsider), Kevin (the star), Benji (the rebel) and Ramona the feisty bar owner.

These people all have links to the sport that has kept the town going, but when a tragedy occurs the town’s people become extremely divided and the question of ethics and morals begin to surface. The concept of right and wrong becomes blurred against the people’s desperate need to keep the town alive. Bringing light to this tragic occurrence could damage Beartown forever and there are people in the town that will do absolutely anything to prevent that from happening.

The novel also deals with the issues of alienation, and the many stigmas attached to immigrants living in foreign countries, homosexuality and its link with the world of sport, and the culture of rape and patriarchy. Serious issues that are dealt with in the most sensitive and beautiful way allow this novel set in the ice and the loneliness of a forest to transcend that cold and that isolation to become one of the most heart-warming and ‘real’ novels I have read in a really long time.

I loved this book with all my heart and I can’t wait to pick up its sequel, Us Against You (2018) and indulge once again in Backman’s delightful story-telling.

"Because if you love hockey, if you love anything, really, you'd really prefer it to exist inside a bubble, unaffected by anything happening outside. You want there to be one place, one single place, which will always be exactly the same, no matter how much the world outside might change" (Backman:2016;294-295)

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