Review by Emily Fuller
Fredrik Backman is one of those rare treasures I hold so close to my heart, every hilariously clever and poignant novel of his has rightfully earned a place among some of my most adored reads. So when I initially found out he was in the process of writing some material that was a massive departure from his usual tale, I was a little taken aback and curious as to how much I would enjoy his new work. Most of us who read Backman are familiar with his whimsical trademark of the uplifting and emotional fiction, however this new novel was rather delving into something much darker and heavy in substance.
Beartown is a tiny insignificant community that is under threat of being swallowed by the forest trees surrounding it. However, within the confines of this little snow town lies an ice rink – Beartown’s own centre of gravity. It is the very shred of hope that the community has in believing they may have a prosperous future one day, and it is this hope that rests on the shoulders of a team of teenage boys. This junior team could pave the way to Beartown’s success.
“It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.”
Oh my goodness, did this book thrust a violent hand into me with a vice grip on my heart. Contrary to what some of you might have assumed – that this was a novel about sport – well, it certainly is not. Indeed, hockey is a central theme to the book, however it is used to perpetuate the notions of power and how that power can be abused. Backman has an exceptional talent for crafting the most intricately complex character constructs, with each of his characters highlighting the author’s exceptional diversity in his representation. Each of these characters make you feel as if they dive right off the page a bury themselves deep into your mind – it’s a pretty unnerving sensation when reading a novel. Similarly to his previous novels, Backman’s storytelling has this enchanting quality that places you as the social commentator of each character’s thoughts and exchanges between one another. Through these captivating personalities, Beartown weaves a tale about the significant struggles in the everyday. It is a novel about the responsibilities and burdens of parenthood, about finally feeling a part of something when you’ve spent so long on the outside looking in. It’s also a book about the staggering power of friendship, whether it’s positive or negative. It is a tale about the heavy toll that keeping secrets can have on you. A lot of these notions hit dangerously close to home for a lot of us, which I think is what makes Backman so accessible as an author.
On an even deeper level, this novel completely wrecked me with its critique on the toxic masculinity and rape culture that is present in small rural communities that thrive off idolizing those men who succeed in sport. Unlike a lot of novels that deal with the issues of sexual assault, Beartown explores the devastation of rape from a multiplicity of angles – from the people who’d rather turn a blind eye, the perpetrator, and to the victim themselves. Whilst he addresses all of these issues, Backman achieves it in such a way where the politics don’t dictate the entire novel – rather, he is more interested in capturing the humanistic essence of such trauma, and how that instils the psychological and sociological consequences for both the individuals and the community as a whole.
I read this book quite some time ago, but I just recently finished Backman’s sequel to this novel, Us Against You, which completely reinvigorated my adoration for Beartown and also this latest sequel. Both novels have had that transformative effect on me that I don’t often experience with reading novels – they have left a huge imprint on my heart, as all of the best novels should. I could feel all of the intensity of the emotions that were rattling inside of me, making me hold my breath for pages on end. So please do yourself a favour, and pick up Beartown, and even its sequel – this is a novel that is so unusually intimate with its reader, with a stunning narration that spurs emotions to be felt in the deepest possible sense. This was a book a read over a year ago and I still constantly think about it and I can still recall the goosebumps it gave me when I finally finished it, which is extraordinarily rare to find within a fiction novel.