Arts book review

The price of winning

Backman’s ‘Beartown’ asks us to choose between victory and responsibility

Fredrik Backman, trans. Neil Smith
Simon & Schuster
September 2016

I stumbled upon Beartown during MIT’s first Mysterious Book Exchange, a fortuitous event that granted me the motivation to read something of Frederik Backman’s. When his novel, A Man Called Ove, skyrocketed to The New York Times bestsellers list a few years ago, I placed it on a to-read list but forgot about it promptly. 

In an interview with Off-the-Shelf Books in 2015, when asked to describe his writing style in 10 words or less, Backman replied, “A writer who never uses 10 words if he can use 12.” I’m not sure if this is due to an error in translation or simply evidence of Backman’s personal flair, but reading the phrase “lactic acid filling his thighs” temporarily transported me back to the days of Wattpad fiction. This is a nit complaint, though there are several others to go along with it, so I would hesitate to call Backman’s Beartown particularly well-written or poetic.

However, what Backman lacks in artful writing, he makes up for with an engrossing plot. In my mysterious recommender’s own words, Beartown managed “to capture so much of the world in such a small town.” I have to agree.

One of the pitfalls that plagues recent novels is the oversimplification of their universe. Their plots center on a single societal issue. When the author does attempt to address other themes, the author almost always fails to add the right nuance to their characters’ decisions. For example, when books explore female empowerment, I see its characters struggle against oppression, but the sacrifices they make are always more than willing. It’s unrealistic to believe that people would give up their countries and friends to fight for their causes without hesitation. In novels, those we regard as heroes are never punished for their actions, despite often breaking many laws in their adventures. Beartown shows us that the right answer is not always so clear and that we must often make painful yet necessary choices in order to do the right thing. What starts as one small town’s thirst to prove its place in the world soon turns into a battle of conflicting desires. What does it mean to win at all costs? Do we allow love and loyalty to persist even through the darkest mistakes? In most storylines, there are good characters and there are bad ones. In Beartown, there’s good and there’s evil, but what makes the characters real and relatable is how well they reflect us: some parts good, some parts bad, and most parts a work in progress.

Backman skillfully allows us to peer into the minds of nearly all the characters through his use of a third-person omniscient narrator. In the first few chapters, he presents the “main cast” of the show, but it’s not immediately clear who will become the central figure of the story. Mimicking how we develop relationships in real life, at first Backman only reveals to us what any stranger could see: a boy who loves hockey, a girl who loves music, children desperately fighting to make their dreams come true. Despite delving into his characters’ life and thoughts, Backman intentionally withholds key information to slowly reveal to the reader the true nature of each character. This slow characterization irritated me at first, but I couldn’t exactly place my finger as to why. As I continued reading, I realized it was because I found it extremely difficult to determine which characters I should and shouldn’t like. Characters I didn’t like initially redeemed themselves as the plot thickened, while characters I did like revealed their true selves later on. It made for an uncomfy but fulfilling read. 

Overall, Backman’s writing is very accessible. The novel appeals to a wide audience, from those who haven’t picked up a book since the fifth grade to those who set annual reading goals of 50 books on Goodreads. Beartown, however, is not for the lighthearted — the novel contains no traditional hero’s journey nor does it guarantee a happy ending. Just like real life, everything is more complicated than it seems.