Book review of Beartown by Fredrik Backman
I love this book in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to start.
Beartown is a story about a small town on its knees and the people who live in it because they choose to or are forced to for various reasons; and what these people are trying to do to save the town they love and/or hate. It’s also a story about sport – in particular ice hockey - but the ice hockey could be replaced by any team sport and the book would still have the same impact. I’m a (field) hockey player and when Fredrick Backman referred to “hockey”, there were plenty of times I just imagined it as my kind of hockey.
It’s obvious that the author is a hockey fan, or player, or has done his research really, really well. He nails the excitement of the games, the punishing training, the sweat, blood and puking and what separates players like Kevin and Amat from the rest. He writes about vision: “what he sees on the ice seems to happen more slowly than what everyone else sees”. He talks about the “moments” that sport gives us – the thrill, the feeling of forgetting everything else, the togetherness of teams, the relentless grind over years when no one else is watching, the exultation of winning and the devastation of losing.
The ice hockey club in Beartown, its players, coaches, managers, sponsors, fans and their families are all connected to each other whether they want to be or not. Who wins in this complicated mess of connections is anybody’s guess – at times, it seems, no one does. The pressure on the young players, who are only children, is immense, but of all the characters, the children are the ones who bear it the best – they do what they have to do to win and contribute to the team they love. It’s the adults who suffer the most – throwing up from nerves before a game, sweating, not sleeping, feeling bitter or nostalgic about their own hockey careers.
On of the many things I loved about Beartown was the multiple POVs, tricky to pull off, but written with such skill by Backman that it didn’t bother me and rather added to the impression that everyone’s lives were intertwined. From the main characters – Kevin, Benji, Amat, David, Sune, Peter, Kira, Maya and Ana – to the characters so minor that they aren’t even named – the Saab driver, the bass player – they are all heard. Children, parents, teachers, coaches, siblings, friends – everyone is important. A novel about children with so many adults in it and vice versa gives the characters an extra dimension.
The author’s voice is strong, too. He asks questions throughout the book (“why does anyone care about hockey?”) and answers them (“because it tells stories”). He writes about loyalty, leadership, love and hate, fighting, words, friendship and secrets. He lets you know who he is and what he thinks (“all adults have days when we feel completely drained” and “there are two things that are particularly good at reminding us how old we are: children and sports”). You’re left in no doubt how he feels about the boorish, selfish sponsors and the men who run the club, who refer to the young players as “products” and “investments” and how Backman feels about money in sport. How he feels about money in general: the town consists of the rich Heights and the poor Hollow and you know where his sympathies lie. He judges the actions of the townspeople, before and after the crime is committed, and yet he’s compassionate too – characters who you think are bad through and through redeem themselves; the ones you think you ought to hate turn out to be heroes; and everyone – men and women – have flaws and can be forgiven. In particular, most of the parents doubt themselves and their imperfections are forgiven because, in the end, they love their families and that’s what’s important.
There are a lot of miserable people in Beartown – failed hockey players, people in pain, people who keep secrets. People who are bad at their jobs or who don’t have jobs at all. And yet the single fact that they know they have failed, or messed up or not done enough, gives us a glimmer of hope that things will improve for them soon.
Amongst the characters in Beartown are many ‘ticked boxes’ but it is never annoying because the well-developed characters are all more than their tropes. The mega-talented jock, the boy who’s gay but not out, the wannabe musician, the girl with body issues, the refugee, the overweight gamer, the mean girls, the children with drunken, abusive or absent parents, the rich kid whose parents work too hard, the over-protective mother, the bullies. The great thing about them is that they’re all humans who change their minds and are scared, loving, angry, unsure, ashamed, kind, desperate and brave and you never quite know what to expect of them.
I also like that, although there is a crime, there is no court case in Beartown. This took me by surprise, but in a good way. There is only 'trial by Beartown' as the forces of opinion gather behind the victim or the perpetrator. The crime itself is not described in detail – but we know it happened and it’s very clear who committed it and who is and isn’t at fault. There is no neat resolution at the end. Nobody gets what they want. It’s not a feel-good novel, and there are loose ends (for the sequel?), so it’s realistic and therefore all the more heart-breaking.
There are threads running through the book which I love and which will stay with me for a long time. The sound of the hockey puck echoing the sound of the shotgun – bang-bang-bang – and the foreshadowing that kept me wondering and turning the pages late into the night, long after I should have fallen asleep.
If you think this is a book about men and boys playing sport, it’s not – it’s about women and girls. If you’re in any doubt about that, picture the future girls’ hockey team and think about the strength and wisdom of the female characters like Ramona, Jeanette, Adri, Kira, Ana, Maya and Fatima. Also, read Ramona’s rant to Sune as well as Ana’s thoughts at the end of chapter 41. The women are the heroes of Beartown. The girls are the future of Beartown.
I can’t wait to read the follow up to Beartown (‘Us Against You’) – so much so that I don’t think I can read any other book until I’ve read it. I don’t think I could concentrate on another story.
For fans of:
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Gold by Chris Cleave
Double Fault by Lionel Shriver
You Against Me by Jenny Downham
Asking for It by Louise O’Neill
The Deviants by C.J. Skuse
Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf by Sonya Hartnett
Ho, ho, ho:
No Number Nine was featured in The Hockey Paper as part of its round up of Christmas sports books, specifically books about hockey. There aren't many out there (I know, I've been searching) but in 2018 everyone went hockey mad - there are autobiographies, non-fiction and fiction for children as well as adults here. Christmas for hockey lovers is sorted!
I love lists. They’re awesome. I could write a list of the ways in which lists are great. But I won’t. Instead, over the next few weeks & months I’ll be sharing my views on self-publishing and, be warned: there will be lists.
1: The Decision
So, let’s assume that you’ve written a book, and it’s the best book you could have written. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect; you love it like your own child.
You’ve done everything you need to in order to get it to where it is. You’ve given it to trusted friends to read and critique. You’ve made some changes. You’ve had a professional edit and made some more changes. You’ve left it for a while, done something else to clear your head and come back and made even more changes. You’ve had it proof-read again by a professional.
You’re good to go.
At this stage you might, like me, have carefully chosen a few (possibly ten – that seems like a good, round number to start with) literary agents and submitted to them, having looked at the guidelines on their websites. You might have had a few agents ask for the full manuscript and you might not have. Either way, if you’ve waited for about three months after submission and no agent has called you, begging, desperate, loving your book as much if not more than you do, then you find yourself at a crossroads and you need to make a decision.
You could try submitting to more agents. Go ahead – why not – you never know. It’s a very subjective business and it might be the eleventh, or the twenty-first, or the one-hundred-and-first agent who loves your book. You have nothing to lose but time.
You could abandon this novel, think of it as a practice novel, and start writing a new one. Also OK – think of it as honing your craft. Your first novel will always have a special place in your heart, but it might be your second novel that’s the belter. And you can always come back to it later and make it better.
You could self-publish your novel.
I would recommend this to anyone who:
Ask yourself the question: is self-publishing right for me?
Some useful links:
This is a company that will help you at almost every step of the way, from writing and editing courses to professional edits and proof-reading to an agency database.
I did the ‘Edit Your Novel’ course and it was amazing. I learnt so much and made some friends with who, I’m still in touch all these years later.
How to Write by Harry Bingham
Jericho Writers is owned by Harry Bingham, who is also a successful author. This book was invaluable and gave me loads of ideas about how to take my MS forward after the first few drafts and a professional edit.
Next blog: #2 More Decisions – How?
Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf
A road-trip YA novel with a difference
I read a lot of YA fiction because it's fun and light and easy to read. Occasionally, I come across a YA novel that's so good, I recommend it to everyone, no matter what age or sex they are and no matter what type of books they usually like to read. Tschick / Why We Took the Car is one of those books.
I read it in German first and, because I knew I loved it and my German isn't as good as my English, I bought a translation of it and read it in English, too.
In terms of genre, I don't really know how to describe it. It's about two 14/15 year old boys and is coming-of-age / Bildungsroman. But it's also about a road trip and I think, the way the scenery and the dreamlike sequences are written, it could also be described as literary fiction. But who cares about genres anyway?
Quick summary of plot: Maik and Tschick, two unpopular boys at school, drive in a stolen Lada through Eastern Germany, meeting many strange and kind and interesting characters along the way, getting themselves deeper and deeper into trouble as they go.
All to a soundtrack of Richard Clayderman piano music (because that's the only tape they have) and one-liners and put-downs that make the boys (and Isa, the hilariously foul-mouthed girl they meet at a rubbish dump of all places) so realistic as teenagers and so likeable.
Its always hard to pin down what you love about a book, especially when there are so many things. But I do love the friendships between Tschick, Maik and Isa, and of course how confusing those friendships are because Maik loves Isa and Tschick loves Maik (I think) and they all throw insults at each other which, in my world at least, shows how much they all love each other.
When I read this book (twice) I thought it was unfilmable, partly because so much about Maik that you like - his awkwardness, his lack of confidence, his belief that he is boring to the point of invisibility - is internal; also partly because the book is about the scenery and the landscape of their journey and how do you make that into a good film? But I watched the film in 2018 and it was amazing.
It's quite a unique book but I think that if you liked these books, you would like Tschick too:
Almost English - Charlotte Mendelson
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
Let's begin the important business of choosing what we're going to read this summer. Here are my choices (in no particular order):
THE POWER by NAOMI ALDERMAN
Teenage girls who can harm men with an electric shock... the world is turned upside down and inside out when this 'power' spreads to every female on the planet. We follow three women - Roxy, Allie and Margot - and one man - Tunde - as they learn to live in this new reality. The Power asks the question: what would the world look like if women had physical power over men? And the answer is not always good...
For fans of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel; The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey.
THINGS A BRIGHT GIRL CAN DO by SALLY NICHOLLS
Set in 1914-8, three women - Evelyn, May and Nell are involved with the campaign for women to get the vote. Sacrifice, violence, imprisonment, war and love are the ingredients of this wonderful book.
For fans of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
THE WONDER DOWN UNDER by NINA BROCHMAN AND ELLEN STOKKEN DAHL
Written by two Norwegian medical students, The Wonder Down Under is a non-fiction book about the vagina - I know - right?! It covers everything: which holes are which, icky things like discharge and periods, pregnancy, contraception, sex, orgasms, masturbation, female health. This book is a right hoot: I laughed out loud several times at their no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is style. And the detail! Wow. They know they stuff - and now, so do I.
Everyone who has a vagina or who would like, at some stage in their life, to go near a vagina, should read this book. I can truly say that if I had read this book when I was in my teens, it would have changed my life for the better.
I first heard about this book through their Ted Talk.
For fans of A Book for Her by Bridget Christie; Sex and Lovers: A Practical Guide by Anne-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremmer-Olszewski.
#thewonderdownunder #ninabrochman #ellenstokkendahl
FORCE OF NATURE by JANE HARPER
The follow up to Jane Harper's excellent The Dry, which made me feel hot and thirsty and sunburnt all the way through. I like a good murder mystery every now and then - and this one was particularly well written.
For fans of Tana French and Robert Galbraith.
HOW TO BE FAMOUS by CAITLIN MORAN
I haven't even read this book yet but I loved How to Build a Girl (plus everything else that Caitlin Moran has written) and I know I'm going to love this - so it goes on the list.
By the way, a few years ago I lent someone my copy of How to Build a Girl and I never got it back. If I knew who you were, I'd never talk to you again.
NO NUMBER NINE by ME
Sorry, just couldn't resist...
So, if you like any of these books or you want to recommend other similar books, please post a comment below or go to Instagram or Twitter and leave a comment there - the more the merrier!
Q: What's with the initials, FJ?
A: I prefer to be anonymous because I want to keep my writing separate from the rest of my life. And if JK can do it, so can I.
Q: Is that your motto?
A: No, my motto is, "When being chased by a hungry lion, you do not have to be faster than the lion, you just have to be faster than the slowest person in your group."
Q: Nice motto. Remind me never to go on safari with you. Are you a man or a woman?
A: Who cares, these days?
Q: Tell us about your life.
A: That's not a question.
Q: Are you always this annoying?
Q: [sighs] What can you tell us about your life?
A: Not much to tell - I don't lead a very interesting life. I was born, I have parents and siblings, I moved around a lot, I like reading (duh). Are you asleep yet?
Q: [stifling a yawn] I'll ask the questions, thanks. By the way, nice question-dodge.
A: Thank you. Maybe if you asked me about my writing, we could get somewhere...
Q: OK. I give up. Any advice for aspiring authors?
A: Write the kind of book that you'd read yourself.
Q: How did you get started with writing?
A: I re-read 'Far from the Madding Crowd' with my book group (hello book group!) and thought "Wow, Bathsheba Everdene is a kick-arse feminist heroine and I want to write a modern-day story about her." I rattled off 'The Islanders' in a few months and then spent many more months editing it. After that, more and more ideas for stories pinged into my head, mostly on long boring car journeys.
Q: What are you planning to write next?
A: I have an idea for a follow-up to 'No Number Nine' - it's going to be from Nadine's point of view, so might be filthy. It will be set when Pip and Nadine are in their thirties, and there's going to be stuff about pregnancies - I'm provisionally calling it 'Just for Kicks'.
Q: What are your favourite books?
A: What, ever? Have you got all day? I love Caitlin Moran and have read every word she's written. I love Gold by Chris Cleave and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty and everything by Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and Margaret Atwood.
Q: All right, all right. Is 'The Islanders' autobiographical?
A: A few things are familiar to me. I went to boarding school for a while. I directed a school play, badly. I've been to Cornwall on holiday. But the story is inspired by 'Far from the Madding Crowd' so it's definitely not about me.
Q: How about 'No Number Nine' - is that autobiographical?
A: Not really. I lived in Munich, I was an au pair, I was sacked from being an au pair, I went to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. All the rest is made up.
Q: Do you, like Pip, speak German?
Q: Any chance 'No Number Nine' will be translated into German soon?
A: Ja. Aber nicht von mir.
Q: Um. Right. Did the ending of 'No Number Nine' actually happen, or was it in Pip's imagination?
A: You get to decide that. Also if you read 'Just for Kicks' you'll find out, won't you?
Q: What about hockey? Do you play?
A: I used to and still have a stick, somewhere, that I dust off from time to time. I've played for lots of clubs: Canterbury, Manchester University, Freiburg University, Wimbledon, Battersea Wanderers, Richmond, Rot-Weiss Munich, Grasshoppers Zurich.
Q: Which team will you cheer on in the hockey World Cup 2018?
Q: Aha! So you're English then?
A: No shit, Sherlock.
Q: Do you think anyone's still reading this Q&A?
A: The chances are slim.
Q: What shall we do now?
FJ Campbell was born in the twentieth century in a seaside town and has moved around a lot, in Britain and Europe.