Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

April 12, 2017

Genre: Women’s fiction

Publication date: April 25, 2017

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

A junior league hockey team carries a small town’s pride into the national semi-final match. When someone accuses the star player of a heinous act, the residents of the town will need to decide what matters most to them: hockey or their integrity. Fredrik Backman, bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and other gems, returns to readers with the thoughtful, heartbreaking novel Beartown.

The people of Beartown, Sweden, know one thing for sure: hockey. They live and breathe hockey. No matter that the outside world deems Beartown a dying place. No matter that others see them as gruff and uncommunicative. When the junior league team takes the ice, the residents of Beartown come roaring to life.

And now the team has the opportunity to pull Beartown out of oblivion for good. Ten years earlier, when local star Peter Andersson came home after a short stint in the NHL and became the team’s general manager, he promised to build a hockey club so deep that the team would reach the national level. No one believed him; they laughed at him.

But they’re not laughing now; they’re worshipping his every decision. The junior league team is just days before the national semi-finals, and there’s no doubt in the entire country who will win. Peter vacillates between excitement and crushing disappointment. The sponsors and the board have made one thing clear: If they win, he needs to ask for the resignation of the longtime, old-fashioned coach who had coached him all the way to the elite level and acted more like a father to him than his own father ever did.

Peter doesn’t have much of a choice, however. Hockey rules Beartown, and everyone understands the most basic tenet: club before individual. If it’s good for the team, then it doesn’t matter who gets hurt along the way.

No one realizes just how deeply this tenet has been driven into the town until the night of the semi-final match. At a party, a girl flirts with the team’s star player, Kevin. Kevin has always enjoyed his reputation and how much girls want to be with him. His position on the team as well as in the town convince him that he can do absolutely anything—even ignore when someone tells him “no”—without consequences.

The girl accuses him of rape. He denies everything. All of a sudden, everyone in the town is forced to take a position: players; parents; ardent fans. As the situation develops, each person will have to toe that line and will have to decide whether putting the club before the individual really is the correct guiding principle.

Author Fredrik Backman brings his lyrical style of prose to a small town that may exist in one particular country in the book but could exist anywhere in real life. He tackles the issues of male dominance, the status quo, and internal moral conflict in a way that seems deceptively simple. Yet the longer readers spend time with the characters of Beartown, the more they will understand the universality of the dilemmas those characters face.

As with his previous novels, Backman asks his readers to pay attention. The twists and turns as well as the slow-drip fashion of story revelations will all force readers to stay alert. With a story as important as this one, that alertness is wholly warranted.

Once again, Backman’s narration shares equal time in the limelight with the story he wants to tell. His writing style feels whimsical in even the most dire of situations, acting as the perfect counterpoint to the biggest and toughest questions the book poses. Many of his metaphors will make readers exclaim out loud with their simple complexity, an oxymoron that fans of Backman’s work will recognize and appreciate.

In Beartown Backman digs deeper, giving readers not just one or two characters to care for but an entire town of them. His measured approach may require some patience, but it’s certainly worth it. I recommend readers Binge Beartown.