Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Fredrik Backman - Beartown

In a large Swedish forest, Beartown hides a dark secret . . .
Cut-off from everywhere else it experiences the kind of isolation that tears people apart.

And each year more and more of the town is swallowed by the forest.
Then the town is offered a bright new future.
But it is all put in jeopardy by a single, brutal act.
It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who'll risk the future to see justice done.
Who will speak up?
Could you stand by and stay silent?
Or would you risk everything for justice?
Which side would you be on?

Comment: I was given this book for Christmas and only now did I pick it. What a shame, especially since this ended up being a provocative but engrossing read.

In this novel we follow the inhabitants of Beartown, a Swedish rural town, which is seeing a desertification, because there aren't enough things anymore and it feels as if the place is losing its identity and life. One thing that is defended and liked by the vast majority is the hockey team, and the players are seen as idols by everyone, responsible for keeping the town's pride and name. However, they are all teenagers, shaping their lives and with personal fears and preferences. When the main player - privileged and idolized - commits a mistake, what will people say and do? Will they defend him still or will they condemn him? The whole town has an opinion, but what is really at the base of this feeling, are these people truly entitled to think the way they do?

This was a surprisingly engrossing book. I had read another one by the author and liked it but it felt as if the purpose was too obvious, even if the story was appealing. This time, I was surprised by the opposite: certain elements in the story were about unappealing issues but the path chosen by the author to develop the plot was less obvious. I must say I had a great time reading because I wanted to know what would happen next and how would the characters react.

The plot is apparently simple: a small town, which has lost inhabitants and businesses and amenities has been forgotten with time except for the hockey teams, which still motivate practically everyone, even though it's teams of school kids. One of them, Kevin, a single child, is considered a very good player and will likely become a professional player. Centering the success of the team on him, though, means everyone else knows they are second best and he feels he might do anything. One night, following the successful win at a game, Kevin has a party at his house and he goes too far with a girl. The repercussions are clear, those who believe him and those who believe her.

I found this story to be so amazing because while the reader is clearly set up to defend one side - there's no way the victim isn't the girl - we also get to understand the POV and the feelings of everyone involved, from Kevin to the girl (Maya), as well as the other players, parents, inhabitants of the town... the group mentality installed among these people can be a strong force, one we can recognize in so many small places, where the identity of the place is the most important thing to uphold, as long as everyone behaves a certain way.

In this case, the main theme is hockey and how everyone bets their chances of being proud on the boy's teams and how special they make everyone feel because of their success and attitude. I really liked to have a specific idea of every characters' personality and how strong willed or not they all are, whether they were thinking about the importance of the team or about their own issues. Nevertheless, since the plot goes in a direction which affects how people look at something they didn't feel/live themselves - a girl's rape - it was certainly interesting to see how she is seen by others, more so when the boy accused is someone they worship and don't want to believe would do such a thing.

Of course, the act itself is a crime and the author exploits a lot of what is said in such cases, both bad and good. But it was also very well done how we are placed in most characters' heads, including Kevin's, and we get to see why he felt he could lose control and do that. It's not an excuse, but it definitely shows how easy it is for someone, in the specific frame of mind which makes it possible and bearing in mind what contributes to it, to do wrong things and made feel as if he isn't to blame.

I really liked getting to know some characters and see how they lived this situation, for even those not directly linked to the rape felt they were affected by it. I liked we had different ideas to think about and that the author never says what he thinks. Still, there are always reasons why people follow an idea or a behavior and not others. I found that the kids were heavily influenced by their parents and how easy it is for us to perpetuate what we are told we should do. This means I liked it even more when some of the teenagers revealed a strong will and made decisions based on what they felt was right.

This was a superb read for me. The theme is harsh but it's not unbearable because Maya also grows and changes after what happened but she kept on being a mature person, who reacted as she was able. 
I see there's a continuation and I will want to see what happens next.
Grade: 9/10

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