Where do I even begin with Beartown?
Let’s start with the obvious facts. It’s written by Fredrik Backman, and this novel is a huge departure from his wildly successful earlier ones (A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises… etc.).
The story centres around a small hockey town, set in the back of beyond somewhere in Sweden. Hockey means the world and everything to the inhabitants of this small town, and in the light of worsening economic prospects (“Bears shit in the woods, and everyone shits on Beartown”), the townspeople have pinned their hopes on the junior team winning a tournament to lift them up from the imminent decline.
That’s a whole lot of pressure on seventeen-year-olds and all the people attached to the game (which turns out to be just about everyone in the small town). There are grown men throwing up before important matches, so you can sense just how much this means to them.
Seventeen-year-old boys can be difficult. Add to that the realisation that the townspeople elevate you to preposterous heights, and that they depend on you for charting the course of the town’s future, and you’ve got two things that will likely happen: a) you will inculcate a sense of responsibility, and/or b) you will soon realise that you’re quite untouchable and that you can get away with pretty much anything. This sense of invincibility is displayed time and again in the course of the book. We see that early on in the way the team members behave with a teacher. And it is this attitude which results in a star player being accused of rape, and the story then deals with the fallout of that accusation on the victim, the team, the people of the town, and the town itself.
I am somewhat amazed at Backman’s exploration of rape culture. He’s got the nuances right and the sensitivity with which he captures the whole world of feelings and judgements and justifications around the rape and the handling of the accusation is commendable.
“For the perpetrator, rape lasts just a matter of minutes. For the victim, it never stops.”
“She’s fifteen, above the age of consent, and he’s seventeen, but he’s still “the boy” in every conversation. She’s “the young woman”.”
“It starts with ‘she wanted it’ and ends with ‘she deserved it’.”
“She is told all the things she shouldn’t have done: She shouldn’t have waited so long before going to the police. She shouldn’t have gotten rid of the clothes she was wearing. Shouldn’t have showered. Shouldn’t have drunk alcohol. Shouldn’t have put herself in that situation. Shouldn’t have gone into the room, up the stairs, given him the impression. If only she hadn’t existed, then none of this would have happened, why didn’t she think of that?”
“Perhaps one day the man in the black jacket will think about this too: why he only wondered if it was Kevin or Amat who was telling the truth. Why Maya’s word wasn’t enough.”
Backman also does a terrific job of capturing the conflicts of being a working mother. As the wife of the junior team’s hockey coach, Kira is placed in a certain sort of limelight, and not one that she enjoys a lot. She struggles with all the extra attention as well as trying to balance between her family and her already compromised career.
“There’s a label she used to love but which she loathes when it’s pronounced in a Beartown accent: “career woman.” Peter’s friends call her that, some in admiration and some with distaste, but no one calls Peter a “career man.” It strikes a nerve because Kira recognizes that insinuation: you have a “job” so you can provide for your family, whereas a “career” is selfish. You have one of those for your own sake.”
To write this off as a sports fiction novel would be a massive disservice to the depth of the story. Sure, it deals with a hockey team in a floundering hockey town, but it goes so much beyond that. It’s a story about parenthood, and the many burdens and responsibilities that come with it (“Being a parent makes you feel like a blanket that’s always too small. No matter how hard you try to cover everyone, there’s always someone who’s freezing.”). It’s a story about friendship, and the power and heartbreak of it. It’s a story about leadership, and underlines over and over again how leadership is not just about big words or motivational speeches, but rather about building trust and inculcating the right attutude in your team members.
Backman’s character development is just top-notch. It’s not the lengthiest novel, and there are about 8-9 key characters/POVs, but by the end of the book, you know these characters well, their motivations, their fears, what drives them, what haunts them. The characters seem realistic – no one seems too good to be true. It is really the characters that make the book shine through and through.
Maya’s character is a stand-out… you can see that it is written with so much love and attention. I love the portrayal of her strength even in the aftermath of the incident. Her relationship with her mother is fraught equally with tenderness and teenage frustrations and is so poignantly captured.
Amat is fairly unforgettable too… he loves his mother to pieces and appreciates all the hard work that she’s done to secure a decent life for the both of them, and when he gets a chance to be in a junior hockey team, he sees it as an opportunity to make all the sacrifices made by his mother worth it. His conflict over making the right decision is also well captured.
“Almost sixteen years later, the scrap of paper is still hanging on her son’s wall, the words mixed up, but she wrote them down as well as she could remember them:
If you are honest people may deceive you. Be honest anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfishness. Be kind anyway. All the good you do today will be forgotten by others tomorrow. Do good anyway.
The final lines his mother wrote on the sheet of paper on his wall read as follows: What you create, others can destroy. Create anyway. Because in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and anyone else anyway.
Immediately below that, written in red crayon in the determined handwriting of a primary school student, it says: They say I’m to little to play. Become good player any way!”
There are life lessons peppered aplenty throughout the book, and the overall context and message is so relevant in the light of all the recent #metoo revelations in traditional media and social media. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the book, but really, I think this book deserves to be super high on your list of must-reads.
“Bitterness can be corrosive; it can rewrite your memories as if it were scrubbing a crime scene clean, until in the end you only remember what suits you of its causes.”
“Never trust people who don’t have something in their lives that they love beyond all reason.”
“The only thing the sport gives us are moments. But what the hell is life, Peter, apart from moments?”
“We love winners, even though they’re very rarely particularly likeable people. They’re almost always obsessive and selfish and inconsiderate. That doesn’t matter. We forgive them. We like them while they’re winning.”
“It doesn’t take long to persuade each other to stop seeing a person as a person. And when enough people are quiet for long enough, a handful of voices can give the impression that everyone is screaming.”
If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know what you think of it… let me know in the comments below!
Also, other books I’ve read recently.