This novel that I am sharing is technically neither a memoir nor a biography. It isn’t written in the first person, either. But there is something in the alliteration of Biography Of Beartown that appealed to me so. Plus, we did say that we are also looking into biographies of cities, memoirs of towns, impressions of a country, hence, here we are.
Written by: Fredrik Backman Translated by: Neil Smith
Published by Atria Books (2017, first published September 2016) Original Title: Björnstad Literary Awards: Lincoln Award Nominee (2019), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2017)
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
I would not have learned about this novel if not for the #LitsyBuddyRead that has selected this book for discussion last April. I immediately borrowed it from the library and from the first page I was hooked. For the record, I do feel that this is one of the most powerful openers I have ever read:
With a beginning like this, how can one not possibly read on? Throughout the novel, Backman used foreshadowing consistently. As a reader, I’ve always found this to be a risky move on the writer’s part – for one, the build-up might not live up to the actual event itself, the presentation of the actual incident deemed as anticlimactic because of the layering of foreboding laid out neatly one on top of the other through the pages. But Backman knew exactly what he was doing, and he deftly reveals little snippets here and there, a few hints to tide the reader over, with the big reveal not just a singular incident but one of many – I see it more as ripples that ran across the entire community, each ripple demanding the reader to come up for air every now and again.
The premise is simple: Beartown is a small, almost-forgotten hockey community that perceives the sport as their town’s only pathway to fame and recognition. This would mean better funding, greater allocation of resources, more thriving businesses. Hence, for the people in Beartown, hockey isn’t just a game, it is a symbol of everything that they are aspiring towards. It represents the town’s very spirit that unites all of them and propels them forward to a better and brighter version of themselves. This year, the town has a real chance with the junior ice hockey team about to compete in the national semifinals.
Backman establishes here that Beartown’s heroes are not necessarily your nice, likeable, amiable champions – but hey, they win. Personally, I found these teenagers to be entitled, obnoxious, and with an exaggerated (ok, perhaps it is somewhat a justifiable) sense of self-importance. The way that the young boys behaved towards their female teacher, for example was reprehensible. But that can still be easily taken cared of. They mean no harm, really. But what if they do? What if the star player of this hockey team just so happened to rape a 15 year old girl, because he could not fathom anyone saying no to him? What then?
I don’t think I’ve ever been as enraged in reading a fast-paced novel. While this is predominantly plot-driven, Backman cuts into the heart of his characters so astutely, that his incisive descriptions of who each one is: their grief, failings, carefully-cloaked vulnerabilities – made me care so deeply for them, even while at the same time, I want to climb inside the pages and rip the throat of the community out.
There are secrets in this novel, vigilantly guarded – from one’s self, loved ones, and the entire community. Apart from the brutal rape of a young girl, Backman also rushes headlong into issues of otherness, with Amat one of my favourite characters in the story, coming from the Middle East. His family is, and always will be, outsiders – well, until he has proven his worth and value to the team. Things changed drastically for him, then.
Amat witnessed the rape. Will he stick up for Kevin the perpetrator (the star of their hockey team, the very same one that just embraced him as one of them)? Or will he speak the truth about Maya, the survivor of the rape – who is being slut-shamed by the community for having led Kevin on in the first place?
The quote above, uttered by Sune, the ancient former Coach of the hockey team, made me think deeply about how we let the things that we value define who we are and ultimately, our choices in life – irrespective of them being right or wrong. It made me ponder on the many concessions that we allow, the compromises that we convince ourselves to take, the ever-shifting boundaries that vaguely constitute basic humanity – how nebulous these lines that we draw in the sand, the very same ones we once thought would define the core of what makes us good, decent people capable of determining right from wrong.
Fredrik Backman’s voice is strong, subtle, forceful, and quiet all at once. It will continue to echo in your ear long after you have closed the book. The ending in all its redemptive power, is like a Mexican stand-off, but oh so painfully truthful and credible.
I wouldn’t go as far as say that the ending is hopeful. But Backman makes a few revelations about the fate of some of the characters that would make the reader guess who will eventually die and who will become famous someday. It turns out this novel has a sequel:
This just became my most anticipated read in 2018. I hope Beartown would be made into a film. It definitely has the pacing, the depth, the intensity that a riveting movie requires. This, hands down, is one of my best reads this year.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 33 of 40: Sweden
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