By Ekta R. Garg, Reviewer

November 5, 2020

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Release date: September 8, 2020

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars

When this book came out in September, I had the pleasure of writing a formal review of it at that time. As I considered what book to do for this month’s R.E.A.Ds, though, I knew I couldn’t let the year end without digging deeper into this incredible novel. Because Fredrik Backman is the kind of author book reviewers absolutely adore: dependable.

Every single novel of his has been a bestseller, of course, and there’s a reason for that: Backman’s writing style is approachable, whimsical, and yet so insightful and just flat out smart that people can’t help but love his work. All the way from A Man Called Ove—about an elderly gentleman who wants to commit suicide but can’t because his neighbors keep interrupting his efforts—to Anxious People, Backman gives us characters and storylines that are improbably and yet totally believable.

Here’s the short version of what happens in this new Backman work: A thief tries to rob a bank in a small town in Sweden. There’s just one problem: all banks in Sweden are now cashless. The thief is driven by intense financial need, however, and doesn’t think about this ahead of time, so the robbery fails spectacularly. In an effort to get away from the scene, the thief runs into a nearby building where an apartment showing is taking place on the top floor. There, almost by accident, the thief takes all of the people who’ve come to see the apartment hostage.

Hours later, when the police rescue the hostages, two things become clear: the thief/hostage taker is missing, and none of the hostages will give the officers on the case a clear answer as to why or even what happened during the time they were held captive.

Sounds improbable, right? Almost ridiculous? On the surface, it definitely does. I mean, what kind of a thief doesn’t know about the technology switch in the banks around the country? And how is it possible that out of an entire group of people, who have never met before the day they’re taken hostage, not a single one is going to give the police some key information to crack the case? Isn’t even one of them concerned about justice being served?

At the start of the day, I assure you that all of them would have answered that question with a resounding “yes.” Yet circumstances are funny things. When they line up just right, people are capable of just about anything.

And so we have this group of people who become the unlikeliest of cohorts in this crime. Because if the hostages aren’t going to give up the thief—and the cops can sense they’re withholding information—then they’re kind of complicit, right? Except they’re also the victims. So how exactly does that square away?

It doesn’t, which makes life harder for the cops. A father-and-son team, this is the most excitement their department has seen in…well…ever. When Jack, the son, calls a supervisor for advice, the supervisor immediately sends a message to the cops in Stockholm. The police force in the capital are much more equipped to handle this sort of thing, the supervisor says. He advises the officers to sit tight and wait for Stockholm PD to arrive, which will take several hours of travel time.

Jack isn’t content to wait, though. Reports are that the thief/hostage taker has a gun, and at one point he and his father, Jim, hear a gunshot. While it’s true that his dad has to Google “how to handle a hostage crisis,” Jack wants to be the one to take care of the incident. He doesn’t want to wait for Stockholm, and he certainly doesn’t want to wait on Google.

He also wants to prove he can to his dad. That’s paramount. Because his dad is all he has left.

What neither Jack nor Jim realize is that they share an essential trait with the hostages, which is what made the hostages clam up during their post-hostage interviews. All of them—the cops; the hostages; even the thief—suffer from the fear of what’s about to come next in their lives. These anxieties manifest in different ways depending on the person and the situation, but they’re all real and they’re all the same in the fact that they exist at all.

For the thief, as I said, the desperation of financial need and the fear of being unable to provide a decent home drives the act of robbery in the first place. For one of the hostages, a woman who is the head of a bank, it’s the sense that she might not be able to forgive herself for something that happened in her office. For a married couple who are looking at the apartment as an investment property, it’s the gnawing guilt of ignoring the biggest challenge of their marriage. Even the real estate agent faces anxieties on this day, the day before New Year’s Eve.

Backman takes circumstances that might induce an eyeroll if some other author attempted them and turns them into a cogent, thoughtful examination of the universality of a single fact: all of us are afraid of something. Not only are we afraid, we’re afraid of what feelings and thoughts might come out if we have to confront that thing.

Hence the title.

I won’t lie, when I read the blurb for this novel, before it was available as an ARC (Advanced Reviewer Copy,) I frowned a little. Then I shrugged and moved on with my day. I knew that if anyone could turn these few paragraphs into a wonderful reading experience, it was Fredrik Backman.

Every single book Backman has written has been this one. He leaves us with little nuggets of wisdom, little pockets of gleeful prose, little bubbles of whimsy that pop and make us laugh. As a reviewer, it’s an absolute privilege to read his work and then yell about it from the rooftops.

If you haven’t read this book yet—or any of Backman’s works—I’d highly recommend them.

(If you’re going to read Beartown and its sequel Us Against You, though, be forewarned: you’ll need plenty of tissues. Backman will still make you laugh out loud, but you’ll find yourself in tears many more times than not.)

I can say, without hesitation, that readers should definitely Binge Anxious People.