- - Thursday, June 1, 2017

“Beartown,” Fredrik Backman’s latest novel, takes place in a remote, on the skids, small Swedish town whose people are hoping that their junior hockey team might bring them national glory and with it economic revival. All is going great until suddenly a terrible incident changes everything, not only shattering the dream but also tearing the community apart.

While some sort of case could be made, as The New York Times and others have, that “Beartown” is a sports novel about hockey written by someone who truly has a feel for all sports, it sells Mr. Backman very short not to place strongest emphasis on what’s far, more relevant here than hockey: right vs. wrong, fear vs. courage and the importance and limits of friendship and loyalty.

Although in many ways “Beartown” is surprisingly different, like Mr. Backman’s previous books, it tells a story you don’t merely read but into which you immerse yourself.

His debut novel, “A Man Called Ove,” concerned a 59-year-old curmudgeon whom the reader comes to love not because he changes but because he becomes more sympathetic as the novel unfolds. Heartbreaking yet humorous, it became an overnight sensation when it was published in his native Sweden in 2012, selling nearly 900,000 copies. When published in the U.S. in 2014 it sold modestly but steadily until, thanks to a growing groundswell of word-of-mouth raves, 18 months later it hit The New York Times best-seller list where it remained for 42 weeks. Translated into nearly 40 languages, it has sold millions worldwide.

Mr. Backman quickly followed up “A Man Called Ove” with “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” a tale about the relationship between an odd and precocious 7-year-old girl and her 77-year-old grandmother who bequeaths her the task of embarking upon an apology tour. Apologizing far and wide for her grandmother becomes a discovery tour for the beloved granddaughter.

Next came “Britt-Marie Was Here” about an obsessive-compulsive, socially inept 63-year-old busybody long convinced she will leave life with hardly anyone knowing she was here. Without notice, she abruptly leaves her cheating husband and takes a job as a recreation center caretaker in a back-of-beyond tiny town where nearly everyone else seems every bit the misfit she is. She ends up coaching a soccer team of children who are as unskilled in the sport as she is and where, having left quite a mark, she realizes — and does — what she really wants to do in life.

Like “Ove,” both these novels have been major best-sellers and his delightfully quirky characters and whimsical humor have brought Fredrik Backman deserved attention. His work immediately preceding “Beartown,” the novella “And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer,” is as different from his first three novels as it is from “Beartown” — a sad yet winsome, simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, tale. It is about a mathematician grandfather as dementia begins robbing him of his memories and the impact this has upon him, his son and especially his young grandson.

Now with “Beartown” Mr. Backman cements his standing as a writer of astonishing depth and proves that he also has very broad range plus the remarkable ability to make you understand the feelings of each of a dozen different characters with the same ease he did in his works that were focused on a single central character.

The most compelling reason to read “Beartown” is that it is written by Fredrik Backman. Each of his books have been a pleasure to read — well-paced and with characters so well developed you feel as if you know them and how they think and see things; you feel as though you’re watching and listening not reading. Always with this writer the story is fully packed with wise insights into the human experience causing characters and readers to ponder life’s great question of who we are, what we hope to be and how we should lead our lives.

It is also amazing to realize that one of the world’s most talented novelists is this man who didn’t turn 36 until today, a college dropout who when his first novel was published five years ago was working as a forklift driver at a food warehouse, signing up for night and weekend shifts so he could write during the day. So glad he did.

• Fred J. Eckert, a former Republican congressman from New York who served as U.S ambassador to Fiji and the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture, is a novelist.

• • •


By Fredrik Backman

Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 432 pages

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