Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: 2014Genre: Fiction
What the world sees is a gruff, socially handicapped old man. The vibes he gives off are unwelcoming and sometimes border on being harsh. Almost no one considers that he has lived a life worthy of being told as a story. They assume he has always been like this, of course with no idea of how incidents in his life have affected him.
Ove is upset by everything. The list of infractions that attract his indignation includes the carefree attitude of young people, how anyone would drive a car asides his infallible Saab, the influx of immigrants into Sweden changing the country as he knows it, the nonchalant behaviour of his neighbours towards maintaining a decent community; according to his standards of course. He is even annoyed by cats and men who cannot fix things around the house. He is a man who finds great fulfilment in working with his hands, values diligence, tidy council layouts and community responsibility.
The book is narrated mostly in Ove’s mind’s voice. He is taciturn and most of his expression is the form of monologues in his head where he grumbles and complains about different things. He has devised a secret plan to but the people and incidents around him find a way to get his attention and delay it further from accomplishment.
This is a truly beautiful rendition of how the tensions between new immigrants and already-present nationals can be transformed into relationships built on trust, friendship and even love. In this regard, the credit goes to Parvaneh, his new pregnant Iranian neighbour. She takes a liking to him and is not rebuffed by his outward appearance of steely indifference or hostility. An uncanny friendship builds between him and her young family as he finds himself; against his inclinations, helping them and accepting their help. We witness an unlocking of his memories from a childhood tragedy, youthful days, falling in love with his wife Sonja and finding radiance the type that should last forever.
They, however, suffer a terrible tragedy that changes the course of their lives. This singular incident seems like the last one too many. Choosing to carry on with what he had left involved great sacrifice, loyalty and dedication leaving a normally reticent person even less available for social interaction. He is still to face perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life, the extinguishing of the one light he has left, and the one person whose love and companionship made life worth living. He is suddenly floundering, unable to carry on, the buffer that helped him navigate necessary human relationships gone. Ove fully descends into the permanent disagreeable mood everyone avoids.
“And it wasn’t as if Ove also died when Sonja left him. He just stopped living. Grief is a strange thing.”
There is a brilliance in the way Backman reveals her death. It was easy to think she was in a state where she couldn’t talk as Ove carried on conversations with her every single day. The story doubles back to his plan to end things in a bid to join her in her realm. A plan which then gets disturbed each time by Parvaneh and her cheery playful daughters, youths in his community, his former best friend with who he has had a feud for decades and even a cat. In them, he finds help to render, receives love, and ultimately they unravel the kind, helpful, loyal man who would risk his own life to protect those he cares about.
So meticulous is he that he postpones his suicide for the duty to help these people even as he finds them annoying. They warm their way into his heart having found the real Ove wasn’t quite as scary as his reputation and inadvertently destroy his suicide plans. They form a giant family, navigating major life experiences together like birthdays, childbirth, hospital visits, crime, driving lessons, coming out to homophobic fathers, caring for a pet with human-like mannerisms.
One big theme of this book is that humans cannot be held at face value. We truly do not know what anyone is like until we get to know them. When they are hostile as Baba Ove was, it takes more effort and can be frustrating but it is clear that in this case, it was worth it especially as his attitude was more of a social recluse who was not violent to anyone. It makes you think of how many people in your life you have misjudged because you do not know more beyond their general demeanour. How many are carrying around unhealed trauma? It makes you want to be kind just as it urges the traumatized person not to view everyone else as an enemy.
The vivid representation of grief, sadness, a difficult childhood and how repeated trauma defines a person’s character and world views was heavy. In addition, we see how the system can consistently be unfair on honest upright citizens as Ove is frustrated at many points in his life by local council rules that take things he loves away from him. All his attempts at fighting back are mostly futile. This causes pent-up resentment and feelings of letting himself, loved ones and values down.
This was a unique reading experience in first, the characteristic tone translated works tend to have, each chapter being eponymous with the book title and of course Ove thinking of himself in the third person meaning he was even aloof from his own essence. An overriding issue that the author highlights is modernity moving too fast for the elderly especially those who have no one left to relive the moments their youth with. They end up feeling dissociated and lonely from the new culture.
The protagonist’s warm side came alive with his mother and then Sonja who despite being dead was such a huge presence all through the book. All of this changed with his new family, a motley of characters who create the atmosphere of love and acceptance he needed and achieved the mean feat of keeping a grief-stricken old man from taking his own life.
It is compelling and would evoke tears so be warned.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?
Dr Mariam Toye