Beartown – Fredrik Backman

This book wrecked me. It kept me up until three in the morning, and though I dreaded picking it up again the next day I did – thank God I started this on a Saturday – and I finished it a couple of hours later.

At first I thought it was going to be a beautifully written, heartbreaking exploration of all the things a maybe-championship hockey team can to for, and to, a tiny town, and to its people, especially the very young players. And that would have been enough, really. It would have been plenty. But there is a line right at the beginning of the book foretelling a tragedy: before the book is over two of the characters will go into the forest, and one will have a gun, and the other will be a target. So I knew there was more to it than “just” a game. What might otherwise be small things became monumental; a boy is left standing in a hallway, forgotten for the moment by his best, his only friend – nothing to make note of for an outsider, but life-changing for the boy. And I wondered then and at other points of the first part of the book: is this the person who will pull the trigger? Is this why there will be a shot fired?

What I didn’t realize – and I’m unhappy about that – is that a ways in the book takes a sharp turn. The Goodreads book description talks about a girl being traumatized, and I don’t think it’s too strong to say that’s unfair to some readers. I suppose more detail gives away more of the plotline than might be desired, so stop reading now if you don’t want any spoilers whatsoever, because I’m not putting this in spoiler tags –I think it’s important that at least some people know this going in: the trauma is rape. A teenage girl is raped. I was rocked by the scene (not explicit, but with enough detail to haunt me), and I can only imagine what it might do to someone who was even more sensitive. So: trigger warnings. Big ones. Flags flying and sirens wailing.

It’s horrible. It’s hard.

And that’s kind of the point.

Up to that turning point, I was enjoying the author’s effortless-seeming brilliant thumbnail descriptions of characters. “…Her dad barely awake and vaguely surprised, as if every morning he wakes up somewhere he’s never been before, and her mom with the body language of a remote-controlled lawn mower whose obstacle-sensor has broken”, and so on. I laughed out loud several times.

And, to my surprise, I laughed out loud toward the end of the book, too – and cried, and ached, and wanted to cheer … and ached. Some of these characters became incredibly dear to me; I was surprised by the depth and fierceness of my affection for Peter and Kira (Kia), Ana and Mia and Leo, most of the people of Beartown and even a few in Hed. And I was taken aback by the depth of my loathing for one man – not who you’d think, given that horrible pivotal event, but a team father whose death, whose slow and painful and meaningful death I longed for. And I also hated most of the people of Beartown and even a few in Hed. And I understood where a lot of the pain came from, in this book and, perhaps, in reality, and the helplessness that brought was impossible. “Right now, [he] has only hurt me. But if I talk, I’ll be letting him hurt everyone I love as well. I can’t handle that.” “The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.” That’s too relevant right now.

“Do you know how to save someone from Hed if they’re drowning?” Benji shook his head. David grinned. “Good.”

There was a moment with Ana and the dogs that brought back a lot of bittersweet memories. I was going to save the quote, but it resulted in ugly crying, and I’d rather not keep that.

And there was another moment when I remembered that line about the gunshot, and thought “crap, I was right” – but I wasn’t. I never saw that moment coming, not the way it happened.

Another surprise in this book was that it almost made me want to go watch hockey. It suddenly dredged up a memory from my childhood, when I watched part of a game with my big brother and he explained things like what a hat trick was. “The sounds.” “The sounds?” “That’s the thing about hockey…”

This book is hard to read – and it’s impossible to stop. It’s about a tiny town losing jobs and losing hope. It’s about hockey. It’s about children, and parents, and marriage. It’s about love, and hate, and deep pain and transcendent joy. It will wring you out, and lift you up.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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4 Responses to Beartown – Fredrik Backman

  1. Naty says:

    Thank you so much for your trigger warning… I hate going into books and not knowing those things. It can be really upsetting! The book does sound interesting in any case, I might check it out :)

  2. stewartry says:

    It came as such a shock to me, I didn’t want anyone going into it blind who might be personally upset by it. It’s an amazing book – just not an easy one! I hope you like it.

  3. Cindy GEIGER says:

    Yes! Exactly my thoughts. I was in a literary panic for days. Almost cried when her best friend really showed up for the victim allowing the reality to sink in. So many hands off parents in this book! It’s as much about equality and conscious as it is hockey and moral bankruptcy. Well done!

  4. stewartry says:

    Thanks! What an amazing book. I still need to read the sequel – I’m almost afraid to!

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