A Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Spoiler Alert: This review discusses some of the main revelations of the plot, so if you plan to read it, save the review for after you’ve whipped through this page turner!
It is hard to imagine an author making a man’s repeated attempts at suicide funny, but that’s exactly what Fredrik Backman manages to do in A Man Called Ove, his bestselling novel published in 2012 and translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch in 2014. This hilarious and life-affirming novel will be discussed at the Crozet Library Book Club Monday, Nov. 6, beginning at 7 p.m., and all are welcome! Ove (pronounced Ooo-vah), a 59-year-old curmudgeon who has just been laid off from his railroad job of 40 years, is angry at the world and disappointed at the turn his life has taken—“Life was never meant to turn into this,” he laments. He takes out his frustrations on everyone and everything, yelling at sales clerks and parking attendants, and even punching a hospital clown who makes Ove’s five-kroner coin disappear in a magic trick. His running interior monologue consists of negative generalizations about the state of a world peopled by “useless bloody imbeciles” who “have no respect for decent, honest functionality anymore.” For example, no one knows how to brew a proper cup of coffee any more or write with a pen, “because now it was all computers and espresso machines.” He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, because “if men like Ove didn’t take the initiative, there’d be anarchy.”
At the beginning of the book, he mistrusts—and dislikes—all the members of the diverse crew of neighbors who live in his high-density housing block, not dissimilar to parts of Old Trail, with narrow alleyways running behind the houses—including a pregnant Iranian immigrant and her two children, her inept Swedish husband, an obese computer whiz, a gay cafe worker (translated from the Swedish as “bent”), an old friend who is battling Alzheimer’s, and a flea-bitten stray cat who adopts Ove after he saves it from freezing to death. With an almost religious devotion to his Swedish-made Saab—which he considers the only acceptable car to own—he views all his irresponsible neighbors who drive Audis, Volvos, and Toyotas as insane. On his daily inspection of the neighborhood for cars parked where they shouldn’t be or trash not properly sorted for recycling, “Ove is the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.” And in contrast to the throwaway culture he disdains, Ove is self-sufficient and can fix almost anything—from radiators to bicycles to ceiling joists.
Our sympathy is aroused and sustained when, in alternating chapters between past and present, we gradually learn that Ove was orphaned at 16, was on his own most of his life, and has had his share of hard knocks. But his father’s legacy of integrity survived: Ove “believed so strongly in … justice and fair play and hard work,” his warm and eternally optimistic wife, Sonja, explained. “Not many men of his kind were made any more.” And now, six months after her death, he misses her so dreadfully that he wants to rejoin her on the other side. But things keep going wrong—the rope breaks, a neighbor needs a ride to the hospital, the gunshot would wake the cat, or a stranger falls into the train tracks just before Ove jumps. In other words, he keeps getting stopped by others’ need for help—requests to which he is incapable of saying No. “Considering how they are constantly preventing him from dying, these neighbors of his are certainly not shy when it comes to driving a man to the brink of madness and suicide,” he thinks in an ironic complaint. By the time you’re halfway through—when tears of laughter are fighting with tears of sympathy over the many revelations that explain Ove’s irascible disposition—you don’t want to do anything other than continue reading this book.
The book is really “a love story told in flashbacks,” observed Hannes Holm, director of the film, in a Sept. 2016 NPR interview. Much of the humor stems from the book’s relatability and refreshing honesty: many of his railings against humanity echo our own thoughts. How often have we been frustrated by the seeming stupidity and corruption of our fellow citizens? Or wished to stop the world so we could get off? Then there is Backman’s gift for comic dialogue. “It’s like an episode of Dexter,” comments his neighbor when he discovers Ove drilling a hole in the ceiling for the hook to hold his noose. “Almost looks like you’re about to murder someone!” Beyond that is the juxtaposition of Ove’s antisocial, hard-boiled exterior with his inherently soft heart, which is slowly but surely opened over the course of the book as he finds his purpose in helping others. In the same way that Ove’s wife, Sonja, had once thawed his hardened heart, his new Iranian neighbor Parvaneh’s warm and loyal friendship saves him from his tragic plans. And we discover that deep down, grumpy old Ove has the heart of a hero. When the neighborhood bands together to prevent the “men in white shirts… [like] robots sent out by the mother ship” from forcibly removing the Alzheimer’s patient to a nursing home over his wife’s objections, community spirit and social responsibility win out, causing Ove to decide—like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway —to choose life (in contrast to the ultimate choice of that book’s author). “You’ll just have to wait a bit longer for me up there,” he confesses to Sonja’s gravestone. “I don’t have time to die right now.”
Sweden is on a roll, international bestseller-wise. First there was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Larsson, 2005)—with its four sequels and counting—then The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Jonasson, 2009), and now Ove, which has sold 2.8 million copies worldwide and been translated into 38 languages. This is Backman’s—a thirty-something Swedish blogger who lives in Stockholm with his family—debut novel, which was a “sleeper” for months after its translation until word of mouth spread and it spent 42 weeks on the bestseller list. Lucy Scholes, in England’s Independent online, commented that the book presents a “Disneyfied version of reality,” but admits that “the predictability… is part of its charm,” and that Backman “can tickle the funny bone and tug on the heart strings when he needs to.” A Kirkus Reviews contributor declared: “In the contest of Most Winning Combination, it would be hard to beat grumpy Ove and his hidden, generous heart.” Backman followed up his success with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015) and Britt-Marie Was Here (2016). He confesses that the character of Ove is loosely based on himself.
This charming, heartwarming book is a model of black humor, delightfully combining the dark—and occasionally absurd—side of life with a celebration of its inherent joy. Ove, a full-fledged, antisocial misanthrope, reminds us of Scrooge before he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. As he finds kindness, love, and happiness in the most unlikely places, Ove—like Scrooge—finally learns that human connection and the joy of giving are what make life worth living.