‘Beartown’ is a powerful novel from a master of character-focused fiction. Along with ‘A Man Called Ove’, ‘Beartown’ is probably Fredrik Backman (and translator Neil Smith)’s most famous work – and for good reason. Where ‘A Man Called Ove’ focuses on one man, ‘Beartown’ focuses on an entire community – what makes it, what ties it together, and what happens when those ties start to fray apart. Its a brilliant piece of literature, and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of ‘A Man Called Ove’, it’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.
Beartown is a nowhere town – a tiny town in a Swedish forest growing smaller year by year as its residents gradually up sticks in search of work and opportunity. It’s also, like so many towns in the area, a hockey town: and therein lies the town’s greatest hope of a future. If their junior hockey team can reach the finals, Beartown will finally be put on the map. When that future is threatened by one person speaking up, battle lines are drawn. What matters more: the future of the town, or the truth?
The novel switches between a large number of perspectives, with Maya, Amat, and Benji probably the strongest. Maya, a fifteen-year-old musician, can’t understand the hockey obsession of the town – she’d much rather be playing her guitar. She can, however, understand their obsession with star player Kevin Erdahl. Maya is sweet and naive but also strong, with an integrity and maturity beyond her age. Its impossible not to like her, and as the mood of the town turns, to both admire and pity her.
Amat, also fifteen, lives in the poor part of town – and for that, his immigrant status, and his small stature, he’s looked down upon. His escape is ice hockey – ever since he first put on a pair of skates he’s adored it, and thanks to his obsession his hard work is finally starting to pay off. He’s been awarded a coveted place on the junior team as they aim for the national finals. Being a part of the team comes with new acceptance and community – suddenly he’s a star, his name cheered instead of sneered at, his teammates protecting him from bullies instead of bullying him themselves. But there’s a cost – and as Amat leaves his old life behind, he starts to feel uncomfortable at the new one he’s thrust into. Like Maya, Amat is sweet and naive – but unlike her steel, Amat is pliable, unable to stand up for anything when the time comes. He has a good heart, and while it’s easy to villainise those who don’t speak up, Amat shows just how hard it can be.
Seventeen-year-old Benji is the backbone of the junior ice hockey team, known for his fierce fighting and protection of Kevin, the team’s star. He’s the cool kid – but Benji has more heart than most, and while he’s crafted himself into whatever Beartown and Kevin need him to be, he’s increasingly uncomfortable with that image. Benji’s character arc is one of the strongest, a compelling secondary narrative to the main story.
Of course, there are major adult characters in the novel too – Peter, the hockey club’s general manager and Maya’s dad, roles which eventually put him in conflict; Kira, Maya’s mum and a high-flying lawyer who, as an outsider to Beartown, still doesn’t understand it; Sune, the adult team’s elderly coach and increasingly ostracised by the club’s ambition. Each of these has a part to play – but it’s Maya and Amat who have the novel’s heart.
The town is central to the story, and Backman crafts a wonderful sense of place, emphasising Beartown’s isolation and accumulating state of disrepair. Like a Swedish winter, it’s a cold and unforgiving place, not fond of outsiders or those who threaten the status quo. This is superficially a book about ice hockey, but anyone who has lived in a small town can recognise the atmosphere of it.
If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that captures person and place perfectly, this is the book for you. Recommended for those who enjoy books about human nature, community, and just generally good reads.
Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd May 2018