Audiobook Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Print length: 418 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

A victory would send star player Kevin onto a brilliant professional future in the NHL. It would mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown and raise their children in this beautiful but isolated place.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semifinal match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Hers is a story no one wants to believe since the truth would mean the end of the dream. Accusations are made, and like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I have to admit, my knowledge about the plot of Beartown before reading the book was limited to basically one word: Hockey. I knew it was set in a small town, and that the town’s focus was hockey. Period. I guess I never read a synopsis, and because the book came out a few years ago and I’d heard how much people enjoyed it, I didn’t read the synopsis before starting the audiobook either.

So let’s just be clear up front. I did really enjoy this book. And at the same time, this is one of the rare occasions when I wish I’d known more ahead of time.

I’m not usually in favor of content warnings, and maybe if I’d read a synopsis ahead of time, the content wouldn’t have taken me by surprise quite so much — but I do feel like this book should have had a much more explicit content warning.

So, here’s my content warning: The “violent act” referred to in the synopsis is rape. And I did not at all realize that I was reading a book that would focus so much on rape and its aftermath. I was expecting petty grievances and sports fanatics and small-town politics, perhaps. So the content took me completely off guard. I don’t have personal trauma associated with sexual assault, but I can easily imagine how upsetting it would be for someone who’s survived such violence to be confronted by it unexpectedly in a book.

But let’s get back to the book itself. Because in many ways, Beartown is excellent!

Beartown is a small town in the forest (in Sweden) that’s seen better days… a long time ago. The town has a factory that’s going downhill, and it has an ice rink. The town is fanatical about hockey, and this year, it looks like the juniors team (15 to 17-year-old boys) has a shot at the national final. And if they win? The club’s sponsors have starry-eyed visions of a championship bringing a national hockey academy to Beartown, revitalizing the local economy and once again making the town a real place on the map.

It’s only a game. Everyone who plays it gets told that from time to time. A lot of people try to tell themselves that it’s true. But it’s complete nonsense. No one in this town would have been the same if that game hadn’t existed.

Through the novel, we get to know a huge cast of characters. There are the boys on the team, including superstar Kevin, who’s expected by everyone to turn pro. There’s Kevin’s best friend Benji, a stoner who also throws himself into every moment of the game in defense of his teammates. There’s Amat, son of the rink’s immigrant cleaning woman, finally given a shot to belong and to prove himself.

Then there are the boys’ families — some supportive, some demanding perfection while ignoring their children, some doing what they can, some doing nothing at all.

We also get to know the hockey club’s General Manager and his family; the coach of the A-team and the rising star coach of the juniors; the local pub owner, the school teacher, and so many more.

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.

Author Fredrik Backman masterfully weaves together all of these people to paint a portrait of a community, with all its flaws and spots of ugliness as well as points of light and kindness. The small-town politics is real and cutthroat when it comes to hockey, and the toxic masculinity simply oozes off the page in various locker room and bar room scenes.

As I said, I expected a hockey story, but Beartown is so much more than that. The attack on the young girl is depicted with sensitivity, but doesn’t shy away from showing us the violence involved and the terror the girl feels.

From there, the focus becomes how the girl’s reporting of the rape triggers a huge and ugly reaction from the town, most of whom see her as a liar, a pathetic girl who got drunk, hooked up with a boy, and then got mad when he rejected her. It’s disturbing to see how far the town goes in portraying her as at fault, and how much abuse and intimidation is thrown at her, at her family, and at the few people who speak up for her.

I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Marin Ireland does a fantastic job with the dialogue and with portraying the different characters, giving them distinct sounds and personalities through her voice.

Maybe because I listened to the book, I became very aware of the author’s use of repetition as a device to drive home certain points. And perhaps in print, I wouldn’t have found it quite so annoying. Throughout the book, there are moments where we get lines of “Bang. Bang. Bang.” representing the sound of hockey pucks. Too much, after a while.

Likewise, I wasn’t crazy about the author’s habit of starting and ending chapters with declarative statements or big questions:

Why does anyone care about hockey?

A long marriage is complicated.

It’s Saturday, and everything is going to happen today.

Pride in a team can come from a variety of causes.

When you love hockey it feels like having your heart scalded.

I’m afraid I’ve focused too much on the negative, which doesn’t truly convey my feelings about this book. I do think Beartown is terrific storytelling. I was completely wrapped up in the plot and the characters — as proven by my tendency to make my walks longer and longer each day so I’d have more time to listen to the audiobook.

Some of these characters made me want to cry. I could really feel the accumulated hurts of so many of them, all the ways in which lifetime experiences add up to more than anyone could anticipate, all the ways in which spoken and unspoken words, actions allowed and forbidden, come back around with unintended and unanticipated consequences.

I was very invested in my favorite characters’ well-being, and wanted desperately to know that they’d be okay. When characters make choices that put them at risk as they stand up to do what’s right, I wanted to cheer, and at the same time, to yell at them to run far away and never turn back.

I guess that’s the sign of a great book — that despite any quibbles with the writing, the power of the characters makes you care so very, very much.

The sequel to Beartown, Us Against You, was released in 2018. And while Beartown felt complete and had a definitive ending, now that I know there’s more, I definitely have to get a copy.!

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