Review: Beartown, by Frederik Backman
Frederik Backman should be arrested for war crimes against my tear ducts. That's it, that's the whole review.
WARNING - this review contains spoilers. Therefore do not read this review until you have read the book, which you absolutely should do anyway.
Right, okay. This is the story of a small town somewhere in the godforsaken forests of northern Sweden, where I am led to believe the winters are long and it's always cold and dark. Basically, a place I will not be moving to anytime soon, irrespective of the fact that I do not speak Swedish (obviously). Everyone in this town, and I do mean everyone, loves hockey and loves the town's hockey club. The junior team is the best they've had for generations, and they're in a national semi-final. Their star is the striker (forward? I don't know, I'm going to be using football analogies because that's my sport), seventeen-year-old Kevin Erdahl. Until he's accused by the GM (general manager)'s daughter Maya of raping her at a party, and everything falls apart from there.
The book does an excellent job of portraying the torrent of horrendous abuse that Maya gets for telling authorities what the star player of everyone's beloved hockey team did (because, spoiler alert, it's not a false accusation; he did rape her) - so much so that I, several times, wanted to throw the book out a window, and I could feel my blood boiling as everyone in a position of authority refuses to do the right thing or protects themselves at the expense of a scared child (my one criticism would be that, occasionally, the book is so horrific it drifts into voyeurism). But it's very nuanced in the way it draws the reader into the orbit of the town's residents - I was absolutely on Maya's side, I wanted to see Kevin punished, but at the same time my God did I want the hockey team to win. I was crushed when they lost the final, and I found myself wishing Maya had made different choices, and then immediately was berating myself for thinking that - and considering that that's exactly what Backman wanted his readers to be doing, I take my hat off to you, sir. Well done.
The narrative is also absolutely gripping. The paperback clocks in at almost 500 pages, but I read it in one day because putting the book down to do other things was actively painful. I needed to know what happened, what exactly the fallout would look like, whether or not the secondary characters would end up by doing the right thing, if the hockey club would get broken up, if Kevin would ever have to deal with the consequences of his actions. The characters are so well-crafted, so richly nuanced and detailed, that I felt like I was in this town, watching everybody react to a horrific crime, learning how the different psychologies of different families impacted the way they dealt with the fall out. The tension is so finely-tuned, so inch-perfect, that everything elicited exactly the right emotion in me. I was put so thoroughly through the wringer that when I finished this book at 3am I burst into tears and honestly there has never been a more cathartic cry.
I would level perhaps one criticism at the book, but considering how much I loved it it truly is minor: the writing and the dialogue can get a bit repetitive and simplistic. I'm sorry, Frederik, but no 15-year-old is as mature and psychologically aware as Maya was; and the need to end every chapter with a Grand, Important Line was a bit grating by Chapter 49.
All in all, though, this book was excellent - tugs on all the heart strings there are to tug on, and makes you run the gamut of emotions and vicarious feelings. It's going to be in contention for my top of 2022 for sure and I really think everyone should read this book, like, right now.