Originally Published in Swedish in 2016
This Edition Published: 2017 by Atria Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Rating: 5/5 Stars
One of my favorite quotes about literature came from author Ernest Hemingway. “All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they really happened.” I keep coming back to this quote as I think about how to talk about Fredrick Backman’s latest novel Beartown. I think Hemingway’s words say what I’m thinking: this book might be a work of fiction. But it is true.
I was raving about this book from the very beginning. The opening lines (which also happen to be the entire first chapter) were a bold way to start the book. It worked though, and I was hooked immediately.
Late one evening toward 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.
In chapter two (and for the rest of the book), I was nodding along at the way the characters interacted with one another. Backman captures people so fully, so realistically. They feel like people I could know, people I do know. They’re normal, they’re average. They’re flawed and their full of feelings and emotions. Backman has to be a keen observer of the way humans interact with each other, because the observations he makes in his writing are things I’d never think to mention, but things that are also so obvious and so true.
For those of you that don’t already know, this novel tells the story of the small town of Beartown. The town is “a tiny community nestled deep in the forest” and many consider it to be dying. Jobs aren’t good, people are leaving in favor of larger towns, and no one is visiting. The only thing the town has going for it is its hockey league. In particular, its junior hockey league. The junior team has won the semifinal and is headed to the final. The town hopes that this victory would bring new life to their dying home.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of high school boys.
The team celebrates their semifinal victory with a massive party, one that gets a little out of hand. When a girl, Maya, who happens to be the daughter of the hockey club’s manager, is assaulted, the town and those in it have to face some difficult realizations. What’s more important? Who do they believe? Is the truth worth the loss of the big game?
This was my first full-length Backman novel. I’d previously read his novella And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer (if you want to see my review of this gorgeous little book, click here!), but I hadn’t read A Malled Ove or his other novels. Now I’ve read Ove, so I understand what people mean when they said Beartown is a pretty major break from Backman’s normal style.
Unlike in A Man Called Ove there’s no one “main” character. True to its name, Beartown is the story of an entire town. Not one person. Not even one family. It’s the story of the town as a whole. At first, the huge cast of characters was hard for me to keep up with, especially because we are switching characters every few paragraphs. But I got my feet under me quickly enough and found this to be a successful and powerful way to tell the story of a whole town. Everyone gets a say, everyone is made significant. Yes, there were characters I grew more attached to than others. But I liked that Backman balances out the narrative by including a little bit from so many different people. This was part of what made this book feel so real.
At times this book made me angry. I was mad at the town for the way they treat Maya; for the way they elevate a sport above the needs of their children and families. I was mad at the entitled players, the coaches who are willing to ignore so much, the way they put so much pressure on people so young, the way people treat each other. But I think Hemingway got it right with that quote I mentioned earlier. This book is truer than if it actually happened. This book could happen in almost any town, with any group of kids and parents. It’s telling the truth. I hope that in doing so, someone might read it who needs to hear that truth.
I absolutely loved this book. I’ve just recently read that Backman is currently working on a sequel. I have to confess I am a little bit torn about this…Beartown was perfect. When it ended, I was sad, because I didn’t want it to be over, but it also felt complete. I’m nervous what a sequel might do to that feeling of ending I got as I flipped the final page. Still, I am almost giddy about the idea of getting to spend some more time with these characters, back in this world that Backman has created so fully.
Sequel or no, I think it is safe to say that Beartown is going to be pretty high on my list of favorite books this year.