A pow­er­ful read

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by SHARIL DEWA star2@thes­tar.com.my Au­thor: Fredrik Back­man Trans­la­tor (from Swedish): Neil Smith Pub­lisher: Si­mon & Schus­ter, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion Photo: LIN­NEA JONAS­SON BERNHOLM/Ap­pen­dix Fo­tografi

“LATE one evening to­ward the end of March, a teenager picked up a dou­ble-bar­relled 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.”

And so be­gins Beartown, Swedish au­thor Fredrik Back­man’s fourth novel. Un­like his past works – his mag­nif­i­cent de­but A Man

Called Ove (2012), My Grand­mother Sends Her Re­gards And Apolo­gies

(2013), and Britt-Marie Was Here

(2014) – all of which fo­cus on the tit­u­lar pro­tag­o­nists, this time around Back­man shifts his at­ten­tion to a whole com­mu­nity.

How­ever, he re­tains the for­mat he tends to favour, break­ing,

Beartown into two parts, which serve as past and pre­sent (with a hope­ful glimpse of the fu­ture).

Some time in the past, an un­pleas­ant event took place in this small town that changed the lives of most of its in­hab­i­tants, some of whom have never re­cov­ered. The pre­sent has the res­i­dents try­ing to deal with the still re­ver­ber­at­ing con­se­quences of that past.

Asin A Man Called Ove and Brit­tMarie Was Here, the tenac­ity of the char­ac­ters left to pick up the pieces is the heart and driv­ing force of the novel – Back­man’s de­scrip­tions of the day-to-day empti­ness tugged at this reader’s heart­strings.

Beartown was once a thriv­ing com­mu­nity nes­tled deep in the Swedish for­est. Now, though, it has fallen into dis­re­pair, with many res­i­dents leav­ing for bet­ter lives else­where.

The town’s one sav­ing grace is the old ice rink by the lake, built gen­er­a­tions ago by the town founders. You see, Beartown is a hockey town, peo­ple here live and breathe ice hockey – and that the heart (and plot) of the novel is ice hockey, too.

The town has pinned its hopes on its ju­nior ice hockey team. As the novel opens, the team has made it to the na­tional semi-fi­nals and stands a good chance of win­ning.

It is a chance at na­tional recog­ni­tion and, fol­low­ing that, the pos­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ment fund­ing, new in­come streams through new jobs and tourism, a hockey school, a new ice rink, and a shop­ping cen­tre.

Above all, Beartown folks would have some hope that their dy­ing town has a chance of sur­vival.

That’s an aw­ful lot of pres­sure to place on teenage shoul­ders .... Like most teen boys, the ice hokey team mem­bers are more con­cerned about hav­ing a good time and liv­ing for the mo­ment than be­ing town he­roes on ice skates.

While the novel is an easy and in­ter­est­ing read – Back­man has a knack for draw­ing his read­ers into his tales – there are, ad­mit­tedly, times that Beartown veers close to hav­ing a pre­dictable and fa­mil­iar plot­line.

How­ever, Back­man saves it from be­ing corny and a re­hash of pre­vi­ous works with his char­ac­ter­is­tic dry sense of hu­mour and skill at writ­ing char­ac­ters.

Back­man also ex­plains ice hockey in depth with­out re­sort­ing to tech­ni­cal jargon, mak­ing the ins and outs of ice hockey ac­tu­ally in­ter­est­ing.

The change of fo­cus from in­di­vid­ual pro­tag­o­nists to a town full of char­ac­ters show­cases Back­man as an evolv­ing writer in­stead of one who keeps re­hash­ing sim­i­larly-con­structed nov­els.

Based on this, Beartown al­most scales the same lit­er­ary heights as A Man Called Ove.

Those who en­joy Scan­di­na­vian lit­er­a­ture or have fol­lowed Back­man’s past work will find Beartown a plea­sur­able and pow­er­ful read, al­beit one that is laced with dark hu­mour and sad­ness.

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