Ornery Swedes

I finished the first book of the year, laid out in bed, feeling as if I’d been struck by a meteorite. I was in the end stages of what could have been flu or perhaps sleeping sickness, as I’d been capable of doing little else but laze about in the preceding days. My mother got me A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Bakman, off of my Christmas list, and I set into it nearly immediately.

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Some of the reviews of this book mention how difficult it is to accept Ove at the beginning of the book: after all, he is mean to a cat – verbally, anyway – a cat who is obviously homeless at the start of a Swedish winter. He’s a stickler. If something isn’t in the right place, he glitches. But I didn’t have any trouble with him at all – it was clear to me that Ove is somewhere on the autism spectrum. (It was also no act of prescience to figure out he would mend fences with the cat.) Ove would certainly drive me crazy: the routine, always on time. The obstinacy, sticking sternly to the way things should be done. But his strictness didn’t drive me away: it drew me in, made me ask what had made him that way and how it could define his life.

I am trying desperately – hanging by the very tips of my fingernails – not to spoil the book for anyone. What I will say is that this book made me cry, great gobs of tears. Usually when I say ‘I cried’ I really only welled up. For this book, I actually cried, tears running down my face, the whole nine. If someone had been there, I would have tugged his sleeve and alternately said: “It’s so beautiful!” and “My heart is breaking!” (And then I would have grabbed a wad of tissues.) Ove is through and through a tragic character – though to call him a hero may be going too far, as that is certainly not how he sees himself – and this can make for tumultuous reading. Get more than two thirds of the way through the book and see how well you do – make like a Girl Scout and be prepared.

 

I don’t know if it’s the translation or simply this way of writing, but the book feels like it has just enough meat to it, with enough wiggle room to posit all of the things left unsaid; Gradually, chapter by chapter, we can situate ourselves incrementally better in the plot and in Ove himself. The book is beautifully paced, and you can feel the deliberateness of the author: everything is in its place and functions as you would expect. Everything is in a little box: “Ove thinks about his wife,” “Ove shovels,” “Ove kicks something,” “Ove thinks unkind thoughts about his neighbors,” “Ove obsesses about cars.”

Frankly, though, that was the one thing that bothered me about this book. It’s so spotless, so perfect, so inevitable, I want to spill red wine and marinara sauce all over it. Every question but one is answered at the end of the book (did he do it?? didn’t he??), all those ducks – or perhaps Von Trapp children – in a row. It’s delicately and purposefully engineered, and man: I would love to scuff it up a little, like a clean white Ikea table with doodles in Sharpie on one corner. However, it is as Ove would have wanted it. That one mystery of his life would be the one mystery he would want to preserve, with sometimes cruel clarity for everything else.

It makes me wonder if sometimes books aren’t written for a real audience, but instead for the characters themselves. It felt like Backman was really pulling for Ove, trying to make him happy – though perhaps ‘actualized’ is a better word here. It’s a stark contrast to, for example, Game of Thrones, a series I can’t involve myself with (not the books, not the TV show), because you know that George RR Martin is not on any particular character’s side. There are characters that might be hard to kill off because of their audience appeal (I don’t see the dwarf kicking it anytime soon), but you just know that every single one of those people are walking a thin line with Death in the snow. (Winter came, right? Whatever.) There are certainly benefits to an author willing to get blood in her teeth: not too much, and not so little that you cater to every need. Life isn’t Pulp Fiction, and it certainly isn’t Disney.

This is a great book, and I’ll likely read it again.

 

And now I’ll ask you all a question: should I review a romance novel next? Or a serious book? I’ve read a romance lately I’d like to savage, or I could pretend that I read mainly ‘real’ books… Let me know in comments!

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