Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator: Henning Koch
Format: audiobook, narrated by George Newbern
Start Date: February 9, 2017
End Date: February 15, 2017
Rating: 5 stars
Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the greatest motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.
I was recently made aware of Fredrik Backman through the news of his upcoming book, Beartown, which I thought sounded rather interesting. By chance, I realized that one of his previous books – A Man Called Ove – was sitting innocuously in my audiobook queue, like a thought itching at the back of my mind. A book I probably only added to my “Favorites” list because (1) I liked the cover and/or (2) it was suggested to me. Thinking back, I don’t know if I actually ever read the synopsis or just added it to my list without a thought.
So, not knowing what to expect, I dove in.
The premise was innocent enough. A curmudgeonly old man, used to his certain, specific routines, had his world turned upside-down when he met the young family moving in next door, setting off a series of events both heartwarming and hilarious.
But, the thing about this book is that it is completely unexpected.
It was instantly clear that Ove was a unique character. At first glance, he seemed like nothing more than a grumpy old man. But as the story progresses, we begin to peel back the layers to see the man underneath, begin to understand the reasons why Ove is the way he is.
It was often difficult not to draw comparisons to Carl from Up, though I don’t think that does Ove enough justice.
And that is what makes him such an interesting and relatable character. There’s a gruffness and coarseness on the surface, sure, but underneath we get a different sense of Ove. It’s an Ove who does the right thing even when everyone around him does nothing. It’s an Ove who is not afraid to work with his hands or do what has to be done for the people he loves.
People had always said that Ove was “bitter.” But he wasn’t bloody bitter. He just didn’t go around grinning the whole time. Did that mean one had to be treated like a criminal? Ove hardly thought so.
I liked peeling away the layers to learn more about Ove. I loved the relationship he shared with his wife, Sonja.
He was a man of black and white.
And she was color. All the color he had.
I loved learning about both his past life (his relationship with his dad, his subsequent loyalty to Saab, his interest in his job and working with his hands, his relationship with Sonja) and his present life (his several unsuccessful attempts at killing himself, his frequent visits to Sonja’s grave, his warming to the young neighbors and the subsequent disorder they create). As Ove slowly warms to the neighbors, he realizes that he has a support system that he didn’t realize that was previously available to him. He learned that, even though there were a plethora of men in white shirts seemingly out to get him, he could beat them with an army behind him.
I was also a big fan of Backman’s writing style. The author used an abundance of similes, mostly narrating Ove’s thoughts. Initially, it seemed almost too many. However, they were genuinely funny and added another layer to the story to depict that, even though Ove was depressed and despondent, he was still able to crack a joke. It was his way of thinking about, and making sense of, the world.
Parvaneh’s belly is now so big that she looks like a giant tortoise when she heaves herself down into a squatting position, one hand on the gravestone and the other hooked around Patrick’s arm. Not that Ove dares bring up the giant tortoise metaphor, of course. There are more pleasant ways of killing oneself, he feels. And that’s speaking as someone who’s already tried quite a few of them.
In the end, you can’t help but fall in love with this grumpy old man, who routinely shouts and waves his fist at those who break the rules, who sees the world in black and white, but who is also fiercely loyal to those he deems worthy.
He’d never understood the need to go around stewing on why things turned out the way they did. You are what you are and you do what you do, and that was good enough for Ove.
I rarely give out five stars to a book, but there was something inherently unique about this book. It made me feel. It played with my emotions more than any book has done in a while – going back and forth between being uproarious and upsetting, and back again. I highly recommend this book, so read it if you get the chance!
If you are interested, there is also a movie adaptation (watch the trailer). I will say, the movie is not nearly as good as the book, partially because the English subtitles are poor, but mostly because we lose the often funny inner monologue of Ove. However, I think it did a pretty good job of staying true to the book, and is also worth a watch.