Thursday, May 26, 2022

Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

 For the greatest fear of death is that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.

Dealing with a subject that is charming and humorous on the surface, but layered with serious emotions underneath, is a tightrope walk. Only some creators manage to achieve success in such an endeavor. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful come to mind. Fredrik Backman attempts to walk this tightrope in his A Man Called Ove.

A Man Called Ove starts with a Swedish man called Ove attempting to purchase an Apple iPad. The problem? Ove hates anything with a semblance of modernity and believes that the world is out to fool him – after all, why sell such an expensive "computer", especially one without a keyboard? There is comedy potential here and Backman milks it. As we discover more about Ove, we realise that he is – to use a phrase that Backman keeps repeating – a specific “sort of man”. For instance, Ove is “the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick". He is a functional man, understanding only things he could feel and touch, and taking pride in always being right. A Man Called Ove paints the portrayal of a man who is, on one hand, a geriatric vigilante enforcing rules in his own small – and often ineffective – way; and on the other, someone who would prompt the remark “OK, Boomer!”

We get the first sign that Ove is not just what we see on the surface at a graveyard, when he remarks "It's not natural rattling around the house on my own all day when you're not here. It's no way to live. That's all I have to say"  to his wife’s tombstone. Backman intercuts between the past and the present. It is in the flashback that we meet some of the novel’s more interesting characters. Ove’s wife Sonja and his father stand out. The former is portrayed as an honest, simple, hardworking and efficient man whose principles define, to a large extent, Ove’s life. Sonja is everything that Ove is not - artistic, ebullient, abstract, and friendly. She is “a woman who insisted on seeing more potential in certain men than they saw in themselves”. Her pairing with Ove is unlikely, because  “people said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” In the present, however, Ove seems different, and difficult. He has been forced into retirement and encounters an Iranian neighbor and her bungling husband, an overweight neighbor (whose weight is emphasized too often), a teenager in love, kids who are too friendly for his taste, and a stray cat. A Man Called Ove sketches the journey of a rare kind of person who wants a simple structured life; who encounters multiple incidents of grief that isolate him; and who ultimately squeezes out the inherent good in him to help his neighbors.

Richard Backman’s writing is lyrical, and he uses his metaphors well. He compares a woman’s laughter to a carbonated drink poured too fast and bubbling in all directions. Ove’s rudeness allows Backman to be mean too, as he compares an overweight man’s tummy to a “big mound of ice cream that's first been melted and then been refrozen”, or describes another person as “his hair looks as if someone saved him from drowning in a barrel by pulling him up by his locks". Ove is a misfit who is “caught in a wrong time”, “want(s) only few things from life” and he has a “sense of pride in taking control” and “in being right.” As everything that gave him joy or comfort is taken away from him, Ove is grief stricken. Hence, he views modern society through a harsh lens. After all, many of us work from home, do not have much to show tangibly after a day’s work, and are at a loss when we need to do physical things with our hands. We drive cars with automatic gears, and consider things to be replaceable. We are not self-sufficient. One could definitely sympathize with a person from a different era feeling at odds with our lifestyles.

However, at times it feels like Backman’s critique of the society does not fully fit Ove’s perspective in which it is delivered. The older Ove does not behave in a way that the younger Ove. Some of these inconsistencies can be explained away as a reaction to the multiple scars in Ove’s life. But I still had the distinct feeling that the author has compromised character consistency to add humor. Moreover, there are multiple characters that fit a similar mold - at some level, Ove, his father, his father-in-law, and Rune would enjoy, as much as these men can enjoy, a silent meal together. And finally, the third act of the story is sudden and rushed. We even get a villain, a representative of bureaucracy that belongs in a more Kafka-esque novel. Of course, Backman shows self-awareness here, ending this character with the following sentances : “He goes around the corner and disappears the way shadows do when the sun reaches its apex in the sky. Or like villains at the end of stories."

Backman is going for a feel-good and charming vibe with A Man Called Ove, and he largely succeeds. We encounter some wonderful moments Ove has with his father and his wife. The humor works as well, to an extent. However, I feel that  in an attempt to make this poignant book funny, Backman loses out on a smooth character graph for his titular protogonist.

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