Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: "Beartown" by Fredrik Backman

Here's a little bit of a confession: while I really enjoyed Fredrik Backman's book A Man Called Ove, and the charming curmudgeon who was its main character, I have found in recent years that there seems to be a glut of charming yet misunderstood curmudgeons doddering their way through modern fiction.

So despite people's warm feelings about Backman's next two books, I passed, because I have enough to worry about becoming a (hopefully) charming curmudgeon someday soon. However, I did pounce on his novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, and I fell in love with it (curmudgeon-ish character and all), and it easily found its way onto my list of the best books I read last year.

Even with full confidence in Backman's storytelling ability, I was surprised to learn his newest book, Beartown, didn't follow the same pattern of his other books, but rather focused on a small town which many think is dying out, a town literally obsessed with hockey. I wondered how this would work. But then as I read this book over the course of one late evening in the throes of insomnia, I was blown away, because this was so much more than a hockey novel. Backman pulled off a colossal feat, a literary mic drop.
Beartown is a small forest town that seems to be getting subsumed by the trees around it. One of the few highlights of Beartown is an old hockey rink which was for many years home to the only pastime enjoyed by the factory workers who lived there and the townspeople who cheered with and jeered at them.

"Sometimes the entire community feels like a philosophical experiment: If a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?"

But even for a hockey-obsessed town, the excitement is becoming nearly too much to bear. Beartown's junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semifinals, and many in town think they're going to win. The team may be good, but their star player, Kevin, is exceptional, and thanks to his best friend and defender (both on the rink and off), Benji, he's even better. The outcome of the game has the potential to change many lives—the players, including a new player brought on to the team unexpectedly; the general manager, once a hometown hero who briefly dallied in the NFL; several of the club's coaches, who have differing ideas about what coaches are supposed to do; even town leaders, who see the bright horizon a win could bring.

Despite what happens in that game, one night everything changes. An incident, an accusation, cause sides to be taken, lines to be drawn, people to show their true colors, friendships to strengthen and/or wither. Suddenly Beartown isn't sure what it is or should be—should hockey and its players come first? Is that all that matters? Do the haves get, while the have-nots suffer?

Backman has written an outstanding, emotional, thought-provoking novel about so much more than a town and a game. It's a book about the responsibilities and burdens of parenthood and the ripple effects missteps in parenting can cause; it's a book about belonging, about finally feeling a part of something when you've spent so much time on the outside looking in; it's a book about the staggering power—positive and negative—of friendship; and it's a book about the toll keeping secrets can have on you.

It's funny, I was thinking I would get a Swedish Friday Night Lights but instead found so much more. Backman once again proves he is a writer to be reckoned with, and I'll let him lead me wherever he wants to go next time. No questions asked.

NetGalley and Atria Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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