Thursday, January 28, 2021

Fiction Review: Beartown

Last night, my book group met on Zoom to discuss Beartown by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed Backman's A Man Called Ove on audio last year (one of my Best Books of 2020), but this is a very different kind of novel. Beartown is a dark story that closely examines the intricacies of human nature and what happens when a tragedy occurs.

Beartown is a remote small town in northern Sweden, surrounded by forest, where youth hockey is at the heart of the town. In fact, the town is failing economically, and most people see hockey as their way back to a thriving community. Decades ago, Peter Andersson led the town's junior hockey team to the national championship and then headed off to Canada to play in the NHL. Now, Peter is back, has his own kids, and is in charge of the hockey program in Beartown. A new teen star named Kevin seems to have the same kind of talent that Peter did back in the day--maybe even more. The junior team is headed for the national semi-finals, and they have a shot at winning. The whole town is counting on them, and that means a lot of pressure on this group of teen boys and the adults who coach them. The novel opens with a brief and mysterious passage about a teenager shooting someone else, so there is quite a bit of tension in knowing that violent act is coming. That's not the only foreshadowing, and this novel has another violent act at its center. 

Ample foreshadowing and that chilling opening sentence make this a very suspenseful novel, as the reader waits for the bad things to happen, knowing that the tense build-up to the big game will not end well. But this is far more than a typical suspense novel, as the author digs deep into the complexities of human nature. While the violence and darkness at the heart of the novel were too much for some of our book group, we all agreed that the author did a great job developing full, three-dimensional characters--not just a few main characters but dozens of people in the town, including teens, adults, coaches, and townspeople. This is not just a novel about hockey but about the "boys will be boys" culture that is created from myriad sources in our society. The author writes deeply and thoughtfully about that, as well as conflict, violence, and how a whole community can create a harmful culture. Here, he considers the power of hate:

"Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn't through love because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe--comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her."

That passage is applicable to so much more than hockey and what happens in this novel. Backman's writing, deep characterizations, and thought-provoking concepts at the heart of this story are what make it so special, in spite of (or because of) its darkness. Our book group had a great discussion covering a wide range of topics, and I think this book will stay with me for a long time. That said, I admit I reached for a light, funny novel at bedtime last night to cleanse my reading palate!

415 pages, Atria Books

HBO has adapted the novel into an original series that will begin streaming on February 22. I don't know how close the TV show will stick to the book, but the trailer sure captures its intensity:

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, describing the town and one of the players, and/or download it from Audible (it's a great sample that provides a feel for the novel).

You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!


Or you can order Beartown from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.



  1. This book was the first of his that I read and I think it's really good. I have Anxious People on my TBR shelf still to read.

    1. Oh, then you have to read A Man Called Ove, Helen - just as good and thoughtful but also very funny! Gets into some serious issues without going so dark.

  2. One of my book clubs is reading this in March and I am super excited. I grew up with hockey--with a Canadian mother and four older brothers, it was a big part of our lives.

    It sounds like a good combo of atmosphere and suspense.

    1. I get that, Jane. Not as a kid but in college! I went to school WAY up north on NY along the Canadian border (closer to Ottawa than any US city). We didn't have a football team - hockey was king!