Fredrik Backman, best known for both Beartown and A Man Called Ove, has a unique writing style. On the surface simplistic, he has a talent for summing up truths and getting to the heart of universal emotions, in quotes like “Being a parent makes you feel like a blanket that’s always too small. No matter how hard you try to cover everyone” and “The first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time”.
In Beartown, like many small towns, most people are given a role to play: within their family, within the junior ice hockey team, as a man or a woman or a member of a particular clique at school. Sometimes these structures offer comfort and stability, but in many cases when combined with sexism, homophobia, and an overwhelming focus on loyalty to the town and team, they become oppressive.
My favourite character was Ana, Maya's 15-year-old friend who is seemingly oblivious to what the world and her town expect or want her to be, and focuses only on doing what she likes and being a good friend. Of all the characters, I wanted Anna to keep holding onto this; Beartown needs someone like her.
Her counterpart is Benji. Although he sometimes struggles with being true to himself and in particular being open about his sexuality, he is always true to what he believes is right, and is one of the few who sees the negative impact of the town's hockey obsession.
The book shows that teenagers desperately need to feel a sense of belonging and safety; and so do adults. The switch in perspective between the younger and adult characters showed that many of their concerns were the same, especially when they revolved around feeling different, feeling less than good enough, and above all fear of being 'found out'.
Suspense is built through the novel through clever imagery, the switches in viewpoints, and a lot of repetition (“You can't live in this town, you can only survive it”) that recreates the claustrophobic small town atmosphere in the reader.
The dark sides of small town 'us versus them' mentality are thrust into the light when the team's top player's rape of a local teenager becomes public. Backman deals with the subject of sexual assault in a sensitive and nuanced way that feels real and perceptive:
“She’s fifteen, above the age of consent, and he’s seventeen, but he’s still 'the boy' in every conversation. She’s 'the young woman'. Words are not small things.”
The book was published in 2017, a year before the revelations across the globe that came with the #MeToo movement. That just goes to emphasize that sexual assault has existed in all societies through history, and that #MeToo wasn't a trend or one-off news story. But that movement took on a particular form in Sweden, with a lot of cross-industry organization that covered all levels of society in a way we didn't see in many other countries.
Here are a few articles on the subject:
#MeToo: 'We're shouting in unison, because that's what Swedes do'
Sweden in Focus: One year on, what did #MeToo achieve in Sweden?
What does the #MeToo campaign reveal about Swedish feminism?
- Opinion: Here's how we can prevent a backlash to the #MeToo movement in Sweden
Beartown is part of a trilogy, of which the third part is not yet published, so we're left wondering which characters' stories will be taken up in the later books. Who will continue to follow expectations, and who will defy them? What will the consequences be for the characters and the town? This book and the questions it raises are sure to stick in your head for a long time after.
Here's what else Book Club members had to say about Beartown:
“It's gripping and a very movie-type book. Too many sweeping statements about how people are conditioned or how events change them forever, but overall enjoyable,” – Maitri Dore
“I felt differently about the town and its people and the hockey team before and after the terrible event. After what happened to Maya and how several townspeople behaved reminded me of the #MeToo movement and the terrible revelations so many women made. A powerful novel with a tad too much detail at times. If the author was not Swedish, I would not have guessed that Beartown was in Sweden,” – Arsh Jami
“I liked it. At first it was a sense of frustration, you know something bad is coming but there is such a build up to it that you start to second guess your interpretation. Then the main event unfolds and the author carries you by the hand and builds this narrative from so many perspectives, it was very interesting to see.
The end was a bit anticlimactic but I enjoyed the narrative. The town could have easily be in Canada or the north of the US. The character that I found interesting was Benji and his internal struggle,” – Samantha Hammell
What to read next: If you felt drawn into the small town of Beartown, the obvious book to add to your to-read list is its follow-up, Us Against You by Fredrik Backman. Or for something a little different, I Refuse by Norwegian bestselling author Per Petterson is similar in its setting and focus on what drives its characters, but has a very different writing style using jumps in the narrative and stream-of-consciousness. And for a look at very similar themes (groupthink and othering within small communities) from a different time period, read or re-read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.