Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A grumpy yet lovable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

* * *

Working at the front desk of a library gives me a good indication of what books are ‘hot’ and, of course, patrons share their views. When this title became a permanent fixture on our hold shelf I started to take notice of the feedback and eventually came to the conclusion that it might be a good choice for the group. I am pleased to report that it lived up to the hype, unlike some other titles that I could mention.

Once we had settled on how to pronounce Ove (Oooh-veh) most of the group waxed lyrical about how much they loved this book. We liked Ove, who was so grumpy that he was almost adorable: imagine an angry Droopy and you get the idea. Our first encounter shows Ove raging at a computer salesman. He is rude and condescending, assuming that the salesman is incompetent because the two men are unable to understand one another: Ove has no idea about computers and is angry to be asked questions that make no sense to him. Somehow his vitriol is witty enough, and close enough to things we have all wanted to say out loud, that the scene is funny and endearing. We automatically feel a kinship with this man raging against a world that has had the audacity to change around him.

The following scenes are shockingly dark and immediately reveal the terrible sadness of Ove’s life on the day after he is forced into retirement. The ongoing story of his unwilling interactions with his neighbors is interwoven with flashbacks that show us the important, character-forming, moments of his past. This is a clever way to slowly reveal who he is and why he has become the desperately lonely and angry man that we meet at the beginning. It also makes him grow more complex and sympathetic as we start to see the brave, honest and caring man behind the fa├žade. Whilst most of us liked this structure it did fail some of the group who were too depressed by the darkest scenes at the beginning to continue to the lighter and more redemptive conclusion. 

Most of us recognized Ove from people we know. He comes from an era when men were defined by their jobs and skills, taking great pride in their ability to work hard and provide for their family. In Ove’s mind, a true ‘man’ can handle anything that is required of him and is self-sufficient in maintaining his house, car, garden, neighborhood and everything that entails. However, he does have one area of expected weakness: he shares that generation’s expectation of manly stoicism in the face of emotional upset and relies upon his wife to handle all their social interactions. This attitude is encapsulated in a wonderful scene that recalls his first meeting with his prospective father-in-law. The two men are incapable of socializing with each other until Ove offers to fix an old car: this proves his suitability as a potential spouse and wins the old man’s approval. They continue to communicate in grunts and gestures, but the bond of acknowledged competence is sufficient to keep the peace.

Whilst Ove consistently proves to be competent and dedicated, his life is a series of disasters. He suffers more than his fair share of bad luck and we finally come to understand that he has survived in spite of everything that the world has thrown at him. It is hardly surprising that he is bitter and paranoid: he has overcome loss and disaster again and again, building up a wall of indifference and spite to deal with life’s disappointments. A lifetime of experience has taught him to expect the worst of every person he meets and his unreasonableness is perfectly understandable once you see what he has lived through. He also carries a great deal of guilt and self-blame about some events that he thinks he might possibly have been able to alter if he had only acted in time. As is often true, he judges nobody more harshly than he judges himself.

Whilst the book contains a lot of humor it also deals with a wide range of very serious issues. Poor Ove has to endure many of them himself, although some afflict his family and neighbors. I do not want to discuss most of them because that will spoil the book for those who have not read it and lessen the emotional impact of certain revelations. One issue that is central to Ove’s hardships and salvation is that of the change to a more urbanized society. He sees the benefits of a simpler, more village-like, social structure where people are accountable to one another and work for the common good. In contrast, he is constantly frustrated by the faceless ‘men in white shirts’ in local government who refuse to bend rules or even make decisions because they have no personal investment in the outcome. He often resorts to breaking the rules in order to accomplish goals that seem obviously right to him and then is punished for his actions. This has left him bitter and disillusioned with the benefits of modern life.

This is a book that made me both laugh and cry, which is something of an accomplishment these days. I would recommend it for anyone who enjoys sniggering at someone having a good rant, but who also likes their reads to have depth and provoke serious thought about social issues.