In the wake of My Grandmother sends her Regards and Apologises, I was keen to read more of Frederik Backman’s gently ironic stories. Luckily, my library also had Britt-Marie Was Here in stock. This takes place after My Grandmother and so, if you’ve read that, you’ll understand more of the backstory here. However, Britt-Marie also serves very easily as a standalone tale, a life-affirming story of an anxious, touchy middle-aged woman learning that she still has something to offer the world – and herself.
If you’ve read My Grandmother, you’ll remember Britt-Marie, the pompous, passive-aggressive nag who haunts the stairwells of Elsa’s apartment block. And you’ll know the circumstances which have led Britt-Marie to the state in which we meet her at the start of her own novel. Sitting with an assistant at the job centre, Britt-Marie is looking for a job. She is very firm about her qualities. She has excellent organisational skills and has provided important company support to her husband Kent for many years, by making sure that his dinner is on the table and his life runs like clockwork. But Kent isn’t there any more. Britt-Marie is a person of rare talents and integrity. So she doesn’t understand why it’s so difficult for her to find a job immediately. There is no financial crisis: Kent told her it was over, after all. And Britt-Marie will not rest until she has been given the job she deserves.
Which is why she ends up in Borg. Borg is not, on the face of it, particularly enticing. It’s a small village which used to be dominated by a busy trucking company and now isn’t. The company is gone, the jobs are gone, the money is gone. The Council have closed every public amenity they can get their hands on. But, by fluke, they haven’t informed the HR department that they’ve closed the recreation centre. And so, quite against her better judgement, Britt-Marie finds herself working as a caretaker in a place that’s doomed to be demolished. That more or less sums up Borg. Not that Britt-Marie judges places or people. Oh no. But Borg is an odd place. And the people are very strange. And why are there half-feral children playing football in the car park of her recreation centre?
And then Britt-Marie finds that maybe not everything in Borg is bad. Once she’s cleaned the recreation centre from top to bottom, she finds herself starting to be dragged into village life. She cautiously makes new friends: the garrulous, opinionated owner of the local pizzeria (which doubles as the corner shop, post office, car mechanics and bar); the shy but enthusiastic local policeman; and her grumpy, embittered landlady. And a rat. Britt-Marie even, much against her better judgement, is appointed as the new coach for the football team. Oddly enough, it’s not so bad. Obviously she disapproves of deviations from the bounds of common decency (like having a cutlery drawer arranged in the wrong order), but to her alarm she discovers that people actually like having her around.
After years of defining herself by her husband, and tailoring her dreams to his own, Britt-Marie begins to wonder if she has more to offer. At 63, free from the belittling, self-centred Kent, who took over directly from her belittling, disappointed mother, she begins to blossom, and to learn more about the world in the process. And to learn about football, which turns out to have an awful lot to say about life in general. Football is inclusive – if you can kick a ball, you can play. It provides purpose for a small, struggling but fiercely loyal community which has lost virtually all its pride. And it also explains personalities, as Britt-Marie learns: for example, ‘If you have a dad who supports Liverpool you always… think you can turn everything around‘. While, ‘If you support Tottenham you always give more love than you get back‘. If someone supports Manchester United, ‘they always win. So they’ve started believing they deserve to.’
It took me a little longer to get into this than My Grandmother, which I loved from the very first page. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t warm to Britt-Marie straight away and it took me time to understand why she is as she is, although there’s no doubt that she’s a splendid creation. I think all of us have known someone like Britt-Marie. But I was swiftly caught up in her cautious voyage of self-discovery and began to care very deeply about the choices she had to make. You know that a book’s grabbed you when you’re curled in your chair, muttering, “No! Don’t do that! Don’t pick him!” But ultimately Britt-Marie has to be responsible for her own thoughts and her own ambitions.
Backman is a writer of extraordinary compassion and I note with interest that both his books I’ve read have been written from thoroughly convincing female perspectives. Britt-Marie is another heartwarming tale, showing us that we should never stop believe that we have value, significance and influence to make the world a better place. Delightful and much recommended, although not quite as transportingly lovely as My Grandmother.