For most people, A Man Called Ove is the book that introduces them to the creative genius that is Fredrik Backman. For me, however, this introduction was the book Anxious People, which I read (but did not write about) last year.
Anxious People is a book that can very well be judged by its cover. Specifically, the review you see on its cover: The book truly is “funny, compassionate, wise”, and an “absolute joy”. The fact that I had little to add to the review on the cover was one of the reasons I did not write about it when I first read it.
The setting of Anxious People is imaginative and gripping: a bank robber on the run from law holds seven people hostage at an apartment showing. By the time the police raid the place, the robber has vanished, and none of the colourful testimonies of the seven eccentric-in-their-own-ways people offers any useful leads.
There was also a suicide – decades ago – committed by jumping from a bridge that is visible from this apartment. Every character’s life seems to somehow be linked to that suicide in a way that has deeply impacted the persons they went on to become.
Who was the robber? How did they escape? Why are the witness testimonies so hilariously useless? And how does this case affect the lives of the officers working on – who just happen to be a father-son duo?
This is one of those wonderful mystery books (if you can even call it that) in which the answer to the mystery itself is immaterial because the beauty of the book is in its characters and their journeys.
Here’s the thing, though: When I was reading this book last year, most Backman fans told me this was not his best work. And as someone who was totally bowled away by not-his-best-work, I had to keep reading.
A Man Called Ove is probably Backman’s most celebrated novel so far. I hear it is being made into a movie starring Tom Hanks in the lead (and I can think of no one better to play Ove).
Ove is the kind of man about whom they say things like “they just don’t make em like that anymore” or “God has thrown away the mould that made such people”. Ove is a newly retired man who is introduced to us as a frustrating character that you would be hard-pressed to feel much sympathy for. He is perpetually grumpy, angry at the entire world, refuses to keep up with technology, looks at everyone with suspicion, and is unbelievably territorial when it comes to his house, his street, but mostly the time he comes from.
If that sounds familiar, it is because all of us know a lot of retired people – especially men – who act in similar ways. And boy, do we love to hate RWA Uncles and their WhatsApp squabbles.
But the magic of Backman’s writing is that he makes you love the (seemingly) unlovable. As layer after layer of Ove’s character and story is revealed – through a combination of trips to his past, and his interactions with fellow humans in his present – you cannot help but fall in love with the man.
If there is one thing that both Backman books have in common, it is the message that we need to be more empathetic as individuals and as a society. Because it is the nice and right thing to do, sure, but moreso because do not know anyone’s story. Both these books just constantly reminded me of the adage: “If we knew everyone’s full story, it would be impossible for us to truly hate anybody”.
As soon as I turned the last tear-soaked page of A Man Called Ove, I went online to find more Backmans (Backmen?) And I was overjoyed to discover that the writer has been rather prolific in his career so far. There are now 6 more of his books en route to my house, and I cannot wait to devour and report back on the joy they will no doubt bring me.