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
FJ Campbell was born in the twentieth century in a seaside town and has moved around a lot, in Britain and Europe.