Dream­ing of eco­nomic re­vival in a small Swedish town

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Fred J. Eck­ert Fred J. Eck­ert, a former Repub­li­can con­gress­man from New York who served as U.S am­bas­sador to Fiji and the U.N. Agen­cies for Food and Agri­cul­ture, is a nov­el­ist.

BEARTOWN

By Fredrik Back­man Trans­lated from Swedish by Neil Smith Atria Books/Si­mon & Schus­ter, $26.99, 432 pages

“Beartown,” Fredrik Back­man’s lat­est novel, takes place in a re­mote, on the skids, small Swedish town whose peo­ple are hop­ing that their ju­nior hockey team might bring them na­tional glory and with it eco­nomic re­vival. All is go­ing great un­til sud­denly a ter­ri­ble in­ci­dent changes ev­ery­thing, not only shat­ter­ing the dream but also tear­ing the com­mu­nity apart.

While some sort of case could be made, as The New York Times and oth­ers have, that “Beartown” is a sports novel about hockey writ­ten by some­one who truly has a feel for all sports, it sells Mr. Back­man very short not to place strong­est em­pha­sis on what’s far, more rel­e­vant here than hockey: right vs. wrong, fear vs. courage and the im­por­tance and lim­its of friend­ship and loy­alty.

Al­though in many ways “Beartown” is sur­pris­ingly dif­fer­ent, like Mr. Back­man’s pre­vi­ous books, it tells a story you don’t merely read but into which you im­merse your­self.

His de­but novel, “A Man Called Ove,” con­cerned a 59-yearold cur­mud­geon whom the reader comes to love not be­cause he changes but be­cause he be­comes more sym­pa­thetic as the novel un­folds. Heart­break­ing yet hu­mor­ous, it be­came an overnight sen­sa­tion when it was pub­lished in his na­tive Swe­den in 2012, sell­ing nearly 900,000 copies. When pub­lished in the U.S. in 2014 it sold mod­estly but steadily un­til, thanks to a grow­ing groundswell of word-of­mouth raves, 18 months later it hit The New York Times best-seller list where it re­mained for 42 weeks. Trans­lated into nearly 40 lan­guages, it has sold mil­lions world­wide.

Mr. Back­man quickly fol­lowed up “A Man Called Ove” with “My Grand­mother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” a tale about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween an odd and pre­co­cious 7-year-old girl and her 77-year-old grand­mother who be­queaths her the task of em­bark­ing upon an apol­ogy tour. Apol­o­giz­ing far and wide for her grand­mother be­comes a dis­cov­ery tour for the beloved grand­daugh­ter.

Next came “Britt-Marie Was Here” about an ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive, so­cially in­ept 63-year-old busy­body long con­vinced she will leave life with hardly any­one know­ing she was here. With­out no­tice, she abruptly leaves her cheat­ing hus­band and takes a job as a recre­ation cen­ter care­taker in a back-of-be­yond tiny town where nearly ev­ery­one else seems every bit the mis­fit she is. She ends up coach­ing a soc­cer team of chil­dren who are as un­skilled in the sport as she is and where, hav­ing left quite a mark, she re­al­izes — and does — what she re­ally wants to do in life.

Like “Ove,” both these nov­els have been ma­jor best-sell­ers and his de­light­fully quirky char­ac­ters and whim­si­cal hu­mor have brought Fredrik Back­man de­served at­ten­tion. His work im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing “Beartown,” the novella “And Every Morn­ing the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer,” is as dif­fer­ent from his first three nov­els as it is from “Beartown” — a sad yet win­some, si­mul­ta­ne­ously heart­break­ing and heart­warm­ing, tale. It is about a math­e­ma­ti­cian grand­fa­ther as de­men­tia be­gins rob­bing him of his mem­o­ries and the im­pact this has upon him, his son and es­pe­cially his young grand­son. Now with “Beartown” Mr. Back­man ce­ments his stand­ing as a writer of as­ton­ish­ing depth and proves that he also has very broad range plus the re­mark­able abil­ity to make you un­der­stand the feel­ings of each of a dozen dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters with the same ease he did in his works that were fo­cused on a sin­gle cen­tral char­ac­ter.

The most com­pelling rea­son to read “Beartown” is that it is writ­ten by Fredrik Back­man. Each of his books have been a plea­sure to read — well-paced and with char­ac­ters so well de­vel­oped you feel as if you know them and how they think and see things; you feel as though you’re watch­ing and lis­ten­ing not read­ing. Al­ways with this writer the story is fully packed with wise in­sights into the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence caus­ing char­ac­ters and read­ers to pon­der life’s great ques­tion of who we are, what we hope to be and how we should lead our lives.

It is also amaz­ing to re­al­ize that one of the world’s most ta­lented nov­el­ists is this man who didn’t turn 36 un­til to­day, a col­lege dropout who when his first novel was pub­lished five years ago was work­ing as a fork­lift driver at a food ware­house, sign­ing up for night and week­end shifts so he could write dur­ing the day. So glad he did.

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