Of all the literary voices currently on the scene, Backman’s may not be the loudest, but his is certainly one of the most powerful. He has this way of writing something that is extremely heavy but, typically, he does it in a way that is enjoyable and not at all an arduous experience. Packed full of of hilarity and lightness, his books inspire so many good feelings it makes the difficult life and death stuff easier to process. Beartown is one of the few exceptions to this. Each installment (Beartown, Us Against You, and The Winners) is really quite heavy, both thematically and in overall tone. While I sort of missed that feel-good aspect of Backman’s work that endears me to him so much, I still found this series to be utterly masterful. I’ll try to cover some of the highlights, but Backman does so much right I’m not sure I could ever express everything. It’s something you have to experience yourself. It’s the cumulative reading experience, and it’s a feeling that doesn’t happen often upon finishing a book.
First of all is the setting. Beartown is this tiny town forgotten by most but comprising entire world for some. It’s desolate and freezing, and its citizens live for one thing: hockey. Beyond that, people hunt and drink and have terrible opinions. The thing is, to the reader, Beartown is so vivid. Honestly, it takes all three books to really develop this full and all-encompassing picture of Beartown. By the end, you see it as both the broken and beautiful place it is, and you understand why it will forever have such an intense pull on those that escape their bleak existences. It will always still be home, and no one will ever understand it as deeply as someone who has stood on the freezing ground and felt the life force that pulses beneath the soil. Beartown is as present in the mind of the reader as any other character. There’s this overall feeling of uneasiness. What makes the reader even more uneasy is the way Backman manages to dangle so many frozen carrots along the way, warning of terrible things to come. Sometimes you even know what is going to happen, but you don’t quite know how or why. It’s a dark, cloud-filled sky of literary foreboding. Even when you see it coming, you don’t really see it coming. You still aren’t prepared for the gut punch. Backman’s method is highly effective. I tore through this series at a speed I haven’t achieved in a really long time. It’s about hockey. I couldn’t give a flying puck about hockey, but somehow Backman pulled me in anyway.
Hockey, however, is merely a device in this book. It’s a symbol of that thread through society that takes hold, permeates the masses, and spreads toxicity at a terrifying pace. This toxic culture elevates some and stomps on others without reservation or remorse. Seething beneath the surface is a bubbling poison just waiting for the right moment to spill over. Backman uses one word, at first representative of the sound a puck makes against a hard surface, but with the cadence reminiscent of the ticking timer of a bomb: Bang, bang, bang. This starts off inconsequential, merely a word in place of a sound. By the end, it has become something so sinister it makes your skin crawl to see or hear it uttered.
Sometimes I read books and I think, “ok, they are trying to pack way too many themes into one book.” They become cluttered and confusing because the author is attempting to do something daring and profound but it falls short. Backman, on the other hand, effortlessly weaves in a complete picture of societal ills. Encompassed within it are all the multiple layers for a full understanding of exactly how everything is connected. We not only see the dominoes fall, but we see precisely how they were set up in such a way to bring the whole thing down. There’s no good or evil. There are contextual experiences and histories that lay the foundation for a character’s actions, whether they be good, evil or somewhere in between. The complexity to Backman’s characters doesn’t feel forced. It feels like life. And with people who seem so real, their pain and their confusion only has a deeper effect on the reader. This series is an exploration of human emotion, strength, frailty, and the enduring power of love. But it’s also about the horrible power love has to bring us to our knees, to destroy us. In some cases, loss of love strengthens like armor. In those where loss has the opposite effect, it makes victims of some and villains of others.
While it’s ultimately hopeful, this series did manage to leave a raw, open space in the pit of my stomach. The final book in this series is called The Winners. The irony of that title is not lost on me. There really are no winners, and if there are it is never without a price. As a world society, we have come so far. But we still have so far to go. How much will we allow to happen before we really be the change that’s needed? Most days I fear the answer to that question. One thing I know for sure, we’d get there a hell of a lot faster if more people had the emotional intelligence of Fredrik Backman.
Beartown. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published April 25, 2017by Atria Books. ISBN 1501160761. 418 pages.
Us Against You. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published June 5, 2018 by Atria Books. ISBN 1501160796. 448 pages.
The Winners. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published September 27, 2022 (first published October 6, 2021) by Atria Books. ISBN 1982112794. 673 pages.