“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, Swe-dish 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.
As in A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie 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.
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator (from Swedish): Neil Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, contemporary fiction