With this first sentence, Frederik Backman had me hooked:
“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.”
“Beartown” is an evocative novel that hit me even harder than Backman’s debut tearjerker “A Man Called Ove.”
Though it opens as an exploration of a junior hockey club and its impact on the town’s culture and economy, Backman’s 2016 novel rapidly expands into a much deeper exploration of moral failure and the long-withstanding debate over nature versus nurture.
In a departure from his usual lighthearted stories with limited characters, Backman traverses through dark and convoluted topics with a complex and dynamic cast.
Backman introduces most of the characters throughout the first few chapters in a way that paints a picture of not just what they look like, but also how they perceive themselves, the internal struggles they deal with and how they were raised. By weaving the physical characteristics, personality traits, background and internal dialogue of each of the characters together from the perspective of an all-knowing third-person narrator, Backman sets this story up for success.
After years of a rapidly worsening program, every single person who lives in the small town of Beartown, Sweden, anxiously awaits the semifinal game of the national youth ice hockey tournament.
Just a few chapters in, I was thoroughly invested in the team, as Backman highlights the sacrifices the townspeople made to the rink and how truly dependent they were on the success of a bunch of teenagers.
Star player Kevin is the epitome of entitlement from the outside, though he struggles to live up to his perfectionist father’s unrealistic expectations. His closest friend, Benjamin (Benji), is described as a young man with “sad eyes and a wild heart” and is a dynamic character that fascinated me more and more throughout the story.
Another player, William, plays a large role in the story — but not a good one — as he fiends for Kevin’s friendship and a spotlight on the ice.
Bobo, initially presented as a bully who pummels smaller players for fun, becomes one of the book’s most humane characters, taking the smallest and most timid player on the team, Amat, under his wing. Amat’s single mother’s unconditional love and refusal to be defined by unfavorable circumstances is a clear indication of why his character develops the way it does in this story.
Equipped with Bobo’s strength, Amat’s speed, Benji’s passion, Kevin’s skill and the passionate leadership of Coach Sune, Coach David and General Manager Peter, the Bears make it to the championship and excitement radiates through the town.
But when Kevin is accused of raping Maya, Peter’s daughter, at a party following the semifinal victory, hope for a happy spring in Beartown disintegrates. A week later, with support from her best friend Ana, Maya tells her parents the traumatic story of what happened.
Backman’s illustration of Maya’s hesitation to speak up was emotionally charged and raw. From destroying her clothes out of shame to feeling afraid no one would believe her, the week Maya lived through before finally speaking up felt so real.
Previously deemed untouchable due to privilege, wealth and talent, Kevin is suddenly confronted with the potential loss of his pristine future and is forced to face his unforgivable actions.
Meanwhile, Maya grapples with unfounded guilt and deep despair as her mother unconditionally supports her and her father tries to ignore the truth that Kevin’s downfall will likely ruin the future of Beartown ice hockey.
Half of the team stands by Kevin, and the disgust I felt when reading vivid scenes of individuals putting the future of a hockey team above that of an innocent child was palpable.
Backman depicts the inner strife of those close to Kevin distinctly. His mom wants to defend her son while also recognizing the irreversible repercussions of his actions, while Benji refuses to protect him and shuts himself off from the entire town.
The rest of the novel is beautifully written, uncovering the aftermath of Kevin’s irrevocable mistake. Those who remain in Beartown grapple with their identities, what they’ve lost and how they can move forward.
As the first book in a three-part series, followed by “Us Before You” and “The Winners,” “Beartown” provides insight into the tug-of-war between individual decisions and societal pressures. What — or who — shapes us into who we are? How can we better ourselves and others? Are there some people that just can’t be saved?
“Beartown” takes the cake for my favorite Backman novel.
Though it’s teeming with distressing and heart-rending storylines and themes, the characters and plot felt far more real to me than any of his other works. I was introspective and yearning for more after closing this book.
I give this book a 4.8/5 stars and recommend the entire series to anyone willing to question human nature.