Sunday 24 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 44 : "Björnstad (Beartown)" by Fredrik Backman

Page count: 470 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Sports Ball (could easily also be used as Rec'd, since a lot of Cannonballers have read and reviewed it favourably)

Official book description:
People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

See, if even if the actual blurb hadn't mentioned a violent act against a young girl (I'm sure you can all imagine what kind of an act this is, taking place at a party full of drunken teenage athletes and the girls that admire them), this book, when not making it super clear just how essential ice hockey as a sport and especially the junior team full of promising seventeen-year-olds are to the survival of the rather remote Björnstad (literally translated as Beartown), is foreshadowing something terrible happening from very early on. 

The book is slow to start, and at first I really wasn't sure why I needed to "get to know" quite so many different characters, as the point of view in this book changes constantly between both major and more minor characters. We see the world through the eyes of several of the hot shot hockey players, through the eyes of the ex-pro hockey coach who doesn't want to fire his aging mentor despite the wishes of the team sponsors; his successful lawyer wife, who as a working mother with her own thriving career really doesn't fit well with the other wives and mothers of the town; their cheerful musician daughter; her loyal best friend (with a troubled home life); the junior coach who's looking at a pretty guaranteed promotion once the junior team most likely wins the championship, but also through the eyes of one of the former youth athletes, now a washed-up alcoholic; the agoraphobic owner of the local sports pub and others. 

Nevertheless, I kept reading, and Backman certainly made me aware of all aspects of the little community and the hopes that all of these disparate people had pinned to a few sports games. Two things are made clear very early - if the junior hockey team doesn't win the championship, any chance at revitilising the town's failing economy is completely gone, and something very bad is going to happen to the head coach's daughter at some point. As we get closer to the victory party where the terrible deed is going to take place, I was grimly determined to keep reading until I got past the bad part, just so I could get it out of the way. Imagine my surprise when I looked up, noticed that more than three hours had passed and I suddenly had only about a third of the book left. That's the advantage of the rapidly changing points of view, you keep seeing events from more than one angle and after having "inhabited" all of these different people for the first third you really feel involved in all of their hopes and dreams and their humanity and you suspect you know exactly how bad the fallout's going to be.

In reviews, I've frequently seen Backman referred to as a funny writer. This book is a pretty solid slice of social realism, but I can see why he's such a popular author, with so many fans worldwide. I don't really care about sports at all, certainly not ice hockey. I only vaguely knew the rules before reading this book, yet understood the plays described perfectly.  I personally also suck at all kinds of physical exercise - I will never reach the level of skill these young athletes, even the reserve players, yet I understood their ambition and drive. The three very different coaches, the weary school teacher, the pub owner - they felt like people I might meet walking down the street. 

Backman writes about doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of sexual assault survivors, and I think he writes about the unforgivable acts at the party and its terrible aftermath very sensitively and well. While you might imagine this book being very "male-centric", the women of Backman's book are also all distinctive and never feel like tired stereotypes. One of the hockey players lost his father at a young age, and has as a result been raised by his widowed mum and three older sisters, all very formidable. There is the coach's wife, his daughter, her best friend, not to mention several other women, both likable and rather pitiful in these pages, and again, they all felt like Backman was writing about people who actually exist.

I had not imagined a book about sexual assault and small town hockey would engross me this much. Sadly, I had to return the second book to the library before I had a chance to read it, and am still waiting for a new chance to pick it up. I know Backman has confirmed that there will be a third book to finish the series, so now I may wait until that's out and binge the final two parts in one go. 

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen a number of different covers for this book, but this is the one that was on the library copy I had. The two scenes shown on the cover might not look very exciting, but they're both taken directly from the novel and while I wasn't too impressed with it at first, I now really like the cover design. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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