Book Review: Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

NOTE: Review may contain spoilers. TW for rape and rape culture.

I picked up Beartown by Fredrik Backman after seeing Mia Khalifa reading its sequel Us Against You on Instagram, which she described as “Friday Night Lights, but with hockey.” I figured out that Beartown was the first of the two, and I picked it up as my holiday travel reading.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I fell in love a few chapters in. It’s the story of a small town hockey team in rural Sweden, translated from Swedish by Neil Smith. It follows a lot of different characters – Peter, the hockey team’s GM, and his family, primarily his daughter Maya and his wife Kira. It also follows Kevin, star hockey player, and his best friend Benji, the team’s actually-skilled enforcer, and Amat, a younger player who dreams of playing with the older boys, and coach, David.

On the surface, the story seems to revolve around the junior hockey team, captained by Kevin and coached by David, as they play in their semifinals game to advance to the finals and then, to play in the finals of the tournament to bring a new hockey rink to keep the struggling Beartown economy alive.

A book that on the surface seems to be about hockey is actually about rape culture and the way culture divides and stands behind either rapist or victim. In a novel obsessed with socioeconomic structure, everything hinges on the rape of the GM’s daughter by the junior team’s star player – is Maya telling the truth, will everyone stand behind Kevin because of his “bright future,” and will Amat keep what he knows a secret in order to climb above his socioeconomic status?

The characters in Beartown seem visceral and real in a way that characters in many books don’t. We know characters like Maya or her best friend Ana or boys like Kevin and Benji and Bobo. I didn’t grow up in a town obsessed with hockey, because I didn’t grow up in a place with hockey. But I grew up with Friday night football, and “Friday Night Lights” has always been something that spoke to me as real, even as over-dramatized as it is. Beartown has much the same feeling.

I do want to make very clear that this is not just a book about hockey, but a book about rape culture, and I think it’s unfair for anyone to go into it not knowing that. However, if you aren’t triggered by rape and rape culture – and the depiction is relatively graphic – the book is incredible.

The prose is beautiful – which I’m sure can be heavily attributed to Backman himself, but also credited to Smith, the translator. I found it to be a very fast read, almost in spite of the subject matter. I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it, even though I was sitting on a plane on only about four hours of sleep. I wanted to read this book until I was done. (And then, because I finished it on a plane, I couldn’t immediately download the sequel, Us Against You, and was forced to take a nap, instead.)

If you can, read this book. Read it for the characters, for the story. Read it for the writing, for the sentences that felt like a punch to the gut because they were so real.

Because a hockey crowd knows no nuances, only heaven or hell.

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