BookBrowse Reviews Beartown by Fredrik Backman

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Beartown

by Fredrik Backman

Beartown by Fredrik Backman X
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2018, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan

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Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain.

Beartown has almost nothing left except for hockey – but that could change. Because this year, they have a junior team that is good enough to go all the way. And if they do, this almost dead town could be saved. However, after they win the national semi-finals, something happens that changes everything. The question is, did that incident change Beartown for better or for worse?

I have read all of Fredrick Backman's books (see Beyond the Book), and with each and every one I am pleasingly surprised at just how consistently wonderful a writer he is. He takes a subject I have no interest in, and turns it into a story that grips me from the first page. This time, his story centers on the game of hockey, a sport that I not only don't care for, but also sometimes find appalling. Yet when Backman starts describing how his characters play the game, including the violence that comes with it, we understand that this novel isn't just about a sport. Rather, hockey is simply the metaphor used to explore the human condition.

One of the already oft quoted sentences from Beartown is "Never trust people who don't have something in their lives that they love beyond reason." This could very well be its theme, although it occurred to me that Backman doesn't seem to believe that loving something beyond reason is always a good thing. He gives us examples of the enormous love than can make some people capable of acting unreasonably, which can cause a whole lot of damage. On the other hand, he also seems to say that this same unconditional love can be a source of strength that helps us survive the damage caused by someone acting in that unreasonable way.

It is hard to explain why I'm certain readers will fall in love with this book, maybe because there are so many reasons. It could be because of the vivid portrayal of this unusually large cast of characters with all their flaws. Often when there are many characters in a book I get confused, but not so with Beartown. Backman has a deep, intimate understanding of each one of his characters, which comes through in how he gives their voices distinctive cadences and tenors. Some people will be brought to tears because they care so much about these characters – Backman certainly knows how to evoke that, along with some smiles. Others will love Beartown because of the story's deceptively simple language, enhanced by hints of poetry, flashes of wisdom and even some sparkles of humor.

Another reason to love Beartown is because of the pace of the story. Listen to the opening lines:

"Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled 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."

With that incredible opening, Backman glides up to the climax on a very smooth, clear path; but once we get to that climax and through to the conclusion, the writing becomes vaguer, disjointed, and almost impersonal, and the whole atmosphere of the book changes. It's as if he's trying to show how this event shattered not only the individual lives of those involved, but also the town as a whole. Furthermore, after this event, Backman gives us shards of action where he exchanges the names of the characters with "a boy" or "a girl" or "a man" or "a woman." Since, until this point, the characters have been infused so perfectly with their distinctive personalities, we instinctively know which of them is being described. I found this to be pure genius.

Some people might feel that all of the descriptions of playing hockey in the beginning of the novel are a bit too much and slow the story down. Hang in there, though, because once that climax comes, as well as its dire consequences, they'll realize just how important each piece is to the overall story. In short, Backman has proven, once again, that he is a master storyteller.

Reviewed by Davida Chazan

This review was originally published in June 2017, and has been updated for the February 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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