Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.

As police surround the premises and television channels broadcast the hostage situation live, the tension mounts and even deeper secrets are slowly revealed. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.

In Anxious People, an ill-prepared and not very talented bank robber inadvertently seeks shelter in an apartment that’s open for viewing, turning a failed robbery into a hostage situation. For the people at the apartment viewing, being held hostage (by a robber none view as particularly dangerous) is the least of their worries.

The eight people present at the apartment all have stories to share, which we learn over the course of the book. How and why they all end up at this apartment on New Year’s Eve is complicated, and as they open up to one another, we see common threads of worry over relationships, living up to expectations, family drama, success, and finding meaning in life.

The narrative jumps around in time, taking us back 10 years to a suicide that occurred on a bridge visible from the apartment balcony, through the events of the day of the viewing, plus the police interviews that take place after the hostages are released.

We also get to know two police officers in this small Swedish town, Jim and Jack, father and son, whose professional interactions are more than a little influenced by their sometimes difficult personal relationship and their shared losses and fears. The deeper they delve into the witness statements, the more the bank robber’s motivations and actions become clear, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what happened once the hostages were released.

Naturally, Jim did his best to act like he definitely had experience, seeing as dads like teaching their sons things, because the moment we can no longer do that is when they stop being our responsibility and we become theirs.

This was a quick, captivating read, and yet the level of whimsy in the storytelling is set very, very high. Your tolerance for this kind of quirky, whimsical storytelling will determine whether you’ll enjoy this book. For me, it was mixed. I’ve loved some of Fredrik Backman’s books in the past, yet there’s at least one (My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry) where I couldn’t get past the first few chapters because of the whimsy factor. It was just too much.

He presses his thumbs hard against his eyebrows, as if he hopes they’re two buttons, and if he keeps them pressed at the same time for ten seconds he’ll be able to restore life to its factory settings.

Here, the quirky storytelling leads to some very funny observations and comments, yet it’s all a bit much as a whole. The writing veers toward the precious at times, which tried my patience. A lot. I often enjoy quirky writing, but the sheer volume of it throughout Anxious People made it tough for me to enjoy.

Overall, I really liked the strange bunch of characters who find unexpected common ground through this one weird experience, an experience that teaches them all about how lives becomes mingled and how random occurrences can lead to profound change.

The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we’re doing the best we can, we really are. We’re trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you’re supposed ot insert USB-leads. We’re looking for something to cling onto, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We’re doing all we can to teach out children how to swim. We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.

This wasn’t my favorite Backman book (I’d have to go with A Man Called Ove or Beartown), but I do look forward to continue reading his books, and have at least two from his backlist that I still need to read.

Anxious People is recommended for readers who enjoy character studies and quirkiness, with a smattering of deeper life lessons threaded throughout.

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.!