Thank You to Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Fredrik Backman’s novel, Bear Town, in exchange for an honest review.
PLOT– In the Swedish countryside, deep in the forest, exists a town that’s just barely managing to survive. Beartown has been economically depressed for decades and its population keeps dropping. Ice hockey is the only thing that gives the town hope.
Beartown finally has a great team and if they can win the finals, the town has hope that money will pour back into their community. The weight of this win, rests of the talents of high school students, boys that have been training their whole lives for this opportunity. It’s not as simple as winning a game. There are deep divisions between the coaches, the general manager of the hockey club, and the sponsors. These issues are pushed to the forefront when a star player is accused of raping the daughter of the general manager. What will happen when the loyalties and traditions of a small, fragile town are put to the test?
LIKE– I read Backman’s, A Man Called Ove, a few years ago, and since then, Backman has become one of my favorite contemporary writers. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his latest novel, Bear Town.
Admittedly, I don’t know much or care much about ice hockey, but that is not a prerequisite to reading Bear Town. Although the game and game terminology is used, Backman explains it in terms that even someone unfamiliar with the sport, can understand. The biggest thing to know is that the entire town is obsessed with the sport, basically seeing it as a way to pull their town out of poverty. The parents of the players, sacrifice everything to make sure that their kid has every opportunity. It’s this sacrifice that makes the adults act irrationally.
The boys, (there is no female hockey team in Beartown) who are the best players, are essentially elevated to a god-like status and are able to get away with bad behavior. Although the story is set in Sweden, the same attitude towards sports and talented players exists here in America and will feel familiar.
The best part of Bear Town is the intensity and suspense. The first line of the novel tells us that one person has a gun to the forehead of another person, but we do not know how that scene will play out until the end of the novel. Backman kept me guessing the whole way and that introduction of danger was enough to send a ripple through-out the entire novel. What’s interesting is there isn’t a huge amount of plot to the story, it primarily involved this major game, a celebration party, and the aftermath of the rape, yet the story never drops in suspense. Bear Town is character, not plot driven.
What works so well is Backman’s well-developed characters. Bear Town doesn’t have one main character, it has several, and by the end of the story, I felt that I understood each of them. What Backman has done, is he has made the entirety of the town the main character. The theme of being a team or part of a collective is key to the story. There is a huge sense of surprise with regard to how the characters act in response to the rape. I didn’t anticipate some of the reactions, yet they all made sense within the framework of each character. The ending is beautiful and hopeful. The result is a poignant, thought-provoking, and surprising novel: Backman’s storytelling at its best.
DISLIKE– Nothing. If you’re not familiar with Backman, go buy all of his novels, right now!
RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Bear Town is darker and heavier than Backman’s previous novels, but it’s brilliant. Brilliant and important.