A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

★★★★

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a huge soft spot for Fredrik Backman. He has a talent for writing charming, heartwarming stories about human nature in small communities. Here are the vulnerable, real people beneath the spiny carapaces of the curmudgeons we meet in our daily life, laid bare with compassion and gentleness. And there’s no curmudgeon quite like Ove. This was Backmann’s debut novel and, while already displaying the hallmarks he would develop in his later books, it’s probably the darkest of the three I’ve read so far. That’s mainly because, when we first meet Ove, he’s very carefully preparing to commit suicide.

Ove does everything methodically. Every morning he carries out an inspection of the housing estate where he lives, noting down infringements of the rules and grumbling inwardly about anyone who doesn’t toe the line. He is unfailingly grumpy. And he has no patience with these new people who are moving into the area. He used to have a friend, Rune, but that fizzled out when the two of them fell out over a ‘coup’ on the committee of the Residents’ Association. Then it was just Ove and his beloved wife Sonja. And now… Well, now it’s just Ove. And that’s why Ove has decided that enough is enough, and is carefully planning how best to drill a hook into the middle of his living-room ceiling. Only it transpires that the modern world is such an intrusive, disrespectful kind of place that it won’t even let a man kill himself in peace.

Before Ove knows it, his suicide attempts have been thwarted by a sequence of events including, but not limited to, an insistently friendly pregnant woman named Parvaneh; Parvaneh’s two daughters; a boy with a broken bike; a boy who works in a cafe; Parvaneh’s accident-prone husband; several extremely annoying council workers; the jovial overweight young man next door; and a very unimpressed stray cat. To his surprise – and irritation – it turns out that some people still need Ove and that, to his disappointment, his unique approach to justice still has a role to play in the world.

The reason Backman’s books work so well is because we’ve all known someone like Ove (or Britt-Marie, in his other books). We all remember the kind of grumpy old man who’d come out to shout at kids playing football in the street or riding bikes over his front lawn, and we’ve probably never stopped to ask ourselves why he might be like that. Backman takes us into Ove’s history – not just his loving marriage to Sonja, but also his own childhood and his upbringing, so that we can understand how he has become what he is. Indeed, Ove represents an entire generation, raised to do things for themselves and keep themselves to themselves and preserve that stiff upper lip… who now find themselves entirely out of step with the modern world. As he is unwillingly co-opted by his neighbours, Ove grudgingly learns that goodness can be found in friendships, mutual support and – if he absolutely has to – pet ownership. But he also has much to offer, in the form of his principles and his firm, unyielding notion of what’s right and wrong.

Delightful and poignant, absurd and moving, sensitive and open-hearted, this is just as much of a joy as Backman’s other books. He is excellent at characterisation, not just of humans but also of animals – the cat here, like the dog in My Grandmother sends her Regards…, has a very clear personality. And his characters live in a cosy world that’s appealing precisely because it’s growing less familiar in our big cities: a world where, generally speaking, you know your neighbours and have histories with them and help them, and build a community together. There’s a definite sense of Scandinavian well-being about Backman’s books and at some point I’ll have to reread them by candlelight, wearing socks and wrapped in a blanket, so that I can jump on the hygge bandwagon.

Thoroughly recommended if you’re in the mood for something that’ll have you dabbing your eyes and one moment and beaming with contentment the next. (Though My Grandmother sends her Regards and Apologises is still my favourite.) Has anyone seen the film adaptation of A Man Called Ove? If so, I’d love to know if it’s any good…

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