From The Record, November 3rd 2017
It seems I have graduated from reviewing books that I have received as gifts to reviewing books that my wife has been given. The same friend who introduced us to Max Tudor gave her A Man Called Ove (2013) by Fredrik Backman. Having read it, she passed it on to me with the endorsement “I think you’ll like this.” Give her full marks for perceptiveness.
This story is set in Sweden and is about Ove, a grouch—the sort of man who puts the “cur” in curmudgeon—and sometimes the “mud” too. He is a man who thinks that there is a proper place for everything, and who gets upset when other people are careless about where they put things. Rules are meant to be obeyed. Otherwise they are only suggestions, and if so, why bother creating rules in the first place?
This does not mean that Ove doesn’t have plenty of good reasons to be grouchy. We first encounter him on his first day of retirement. He is 59, and after more than thirty years of reliable service to the housing authority, his bosses have decided to pension him off. They are all heart: they let him come to work on Monday morning so they can send him home again. They knew on Friday that they would cut him loose, but they didn’t want to spoil his weekend!
To add to his troubles, his new neighbours are moving in. Patrick is a klutzy IT consultant. He and his wife Parvaneh have two girls, aged seven and three. Parvaneh, who is Iranian, is expecting a third child. Ove tries hard to perform the dark tasks he has assigned himself for each day. But he keeps getting sabotaged by defective equipment or by an unexpected interruption. Even in the middle of the night, when he thinks everyone else will be asleep, he finds someone he barely knows at his door begging a favour. The reader can be forgiven for thinking that the proper way to pronounce his name is “Oy vey!”
Ove’s problem is that he is competent and efficient. If you want a job done right the first time, Ove is the man to see. His father had taught him how to disassemble and rebuild a car’s motor, and Ove still knows how to do it. So he can fix practically anything. It seems the only people who can’t recognize his talents are his old bosses.
Backman interweaves Ove’s present situation with the history of his life. Backman describes Ove’s relationship with his parents, both of whom had died by the time he was sixteen, and the life lessons he received from them. Backman relates how Ove met Sonja, the love of his life and how Ove, who worked for the railroad at that time, was able to exploit his detailed knowledge of timetables to just happen to be on the same trains as she was while she commuted back and forth to teachers college.
Like most good comedy, there are also sad parts to this story. One is the rift between Ove and his one-time best friend Rune. They had been the first occupants of this housing development. They had collaborated in founding the Residents Association. But now they no longer speak to each other. For Ove, the falling out began because Rune had stopped buying Volvos and bought a BMW. But there is much more to it.
And there is the budding alliance between Ove and the “Cat Annoyance”. This is a stray that Parvaneh has suckered Ove into taking in by lying about her children’s allergies.
“Ove spent most of yesterday shouting at Parvaneh that this damned cat would live in Ove’s house over his dead body.
And now here he stands, looking at the cat. And the cat looks back.
And Ove remains strikingly undead.
It’s all incredibly irritating.”
Backman, who is 36 and a notable blogger in Sweden, has published three more major works: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015), Britt-Marie Was Here (2016) (both of which, like Ove, are available by Interlibrary Loan) and Beartown aka Scandal (2017) which arrived at the Lennoxville Library this week. A Man Called Ove has also been made into a feature film in Swedish (2015).
The Prize season is upon us. You might have heard that Katsuo Ishiguro has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. When he was told of his award, he suspected that it was fake news…The times we live in! We have a good selection of Ishiguro’s works in the Lennoxville Library, even some audiobooks, so check them out. The Man-Booker prize this year went to an American author for the second year in a row. George Sanders, normally a short-story writer, has won for Lincoln in the Bardo, his “unique” and “extraordinary” first novel, which is a highly imaginative account of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son. We did, with considerable foresight, order a copy for the library—in large print, no less, so it can even be admired from a distance!