I dragged my heels a bit beginning this new Fredrik Backman novel. I needed to be in the right head space. I knew that if it was anything like Backman's previous works it would grab me by the throat and not let me go. I was right!
The depth of the characters, the reality of their struggles, so decisively described, and colored with the deceptively simple underpinning of mores of the small community of Beartown, a lonely outpost in the forest, is insightful and powerful.
You know that the intermittent 'Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang.' the sound of a puk striking, or a gun being fired, is important. That small refrain builds tension and suspense--and the wondering.
On the surface this is the story of a town's hockey club and of the A grade team hockey players, their coaches and their families and the importance of Hockey to the morale and financial viability of the town. Beartown is Hockey. It's all people live for. They take pride in their team. It is a way out of Beartown for players and a possible ticket to development for the town. The pressure on the players and coaches is immense. They want to bring money back to the town via hockey.
As the story progresses you are pulled ever deeper into the mindset of Beartown, of what hockey meant for the community and the individuals.
The main and secondary characters are fascinating and wonderfully developed. Backman's writing has you connecting with every character on some level. There are small actions that make you ache, like Kira a successful lawyer and wife of Peter Andersson, general manager of the club, counting her children every night.
Pain and suffering are etched into the pages just as is loyalty and compassion.
'People feel pain. And it shrinks their souls.' The star player Kevin, from a privileged background is talented and aloof. He plays to win, he plays to the crowd, and he plays for parental approval--which falls short. His emotional being is so painful he's shut down. Yet no one really discerns who he is. Except perhaps Benji...and maybe Sune, the old coach, who will soon be dropped.
Kevin's best friend Benji, from the other side of the tracks is his main support. He plays for the love of the game. He is Kevin's protector on and off the rink.
Sune looks at the lads he coaches and is concerned for their emotional development. The newest coach, David, one of Sunes protégées is concerned with winning. (Although there is a different knowing to David in his interaction with the team that is interesting)
'The club’s motto [is]: “Culture, Values, Community.” ' Sune is no longer sure of what that means, if he ever knew and if it is still so. I love the character of Sune. He is the wise old man, the Sage, forgotten in the race to win.
He reflects that 'Hockey is like faith . . . that’s just between you and God. It’s what you feel in your chest when the referee glides out to the center circle between two players, when you hear the sticks strike each other and see the black disk fall between them. Then it’s just between you and hockey. Because cherry trees always smell of cherry trees, whereas money smells of nothing.'
Peter, the Team Manager was a Beartown boy who left to play professionally. Now he and his family have returned--including his teenage daughter Maya.
When the unthinkable happens, the very fibre of the town is jeopardized
I knew from the opening scene that something momentous was going to happen but I certainly was not prepared for where this novel was going!