I had this book sitting on my shelf for a couple years, and while I enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s other books, I knew going in that this one was about rape, so I held off until my book club nominated it. It’s interesting that I always thought of this book as being about rape and everyone I’ve talked to said it’s about hockey.
The premise of the book is that it takes place in a small town in the middle of the woods called Beartown. It’s a town that’s dying, jobs are leaving, and the only thing these people have left is hockey. If you’re a young boy who’s good at hockey, you have a way out, assuming the town doesn’t put so much pressure on you to be the next Patrick Kane that they grind you into dust. Everyone else is screwed, but many people in the town live vicariously through their hockey club.
Beartown is in Sweden, but it could be any small town in the U.S.
Peter grew up in Beartown, managed to go pro and get married to an attorney named Kira. They had three kids, but their oldest got sick and died, then Peter kept getting injured and couldn’t get back on the ice, so he sold insurance until his childhood mentor called him up from Beartown and offered him a job as the hockey club’s general manager. It requires an adjustment for Kira, who’s from a big city and doesn’t understand small town ways, but she’s willing to do it to make her husband happy. She commutes to Hed (as near as I can tell, that’s the slightly larger town not too far from Beartown) to work at a law firm at a job she’s overqualified for, but the location and the hours work for her.
The book starts with talking about why hockey is so much more than “just a game,” and it never really shuts up about it. The plot kind of starts with the club’s board and president meeting and deciding that Peter has to fire Sune, his mentor, as coach of the A-team and promote David, the junior team coach, to A-team coach. Peter goes on and on and on about how broken up he is about it and how hard it is and it bored me pretty quick. Yes, old men getting forced into retirement is sad, but I don’t care about it enough to hash out the same conflicting feelings over and over and over. It’s just not that interesting.
The junior team has a big semi-final game coming up. If they win it, they go on to the finals, and if they win that, it could bring more public interest (and funding) back to Beartown. That could mean a new hockey rink, a mall, more jobs, revitalize the town’s economy, etc. I think this is Backman’s justification for why hockey isn’t “just a game,” but it only works in this particular instance. The rest of the time, there’s a reason the word “fan” is short for “fanatic.”
Meanwhile, Peter and Kira’s daughter, Maya (who is now the oldest, since her brother died), loves music, plays the guitar, hangs out with her best friend, Ana, and has a crush on the junior team’s MVP, Kevin Erdahl. Amat has a crush on Maya, but she only has eyes for Kevin and Kevin kind of likes her back. Amat doesn’t make it onto the junior team until the day before the semi-final.
After Beartown wins the game, there’s a huge party at Kevin’s house to celebrate. Kevin’s parents are both hot-shot executives who can’t be bothered to spend time or have an actual conversation with their own son. When they are around, it’s to make it clear that they will accept nothing less than perfection from their son. They don’t go to Kevin’s games, but his dad still wants an update of his performance after each game.
So Kevin’s party has the typical ingredients of a big high school party, including alcohol and marijuana. Kevin and Maya have both partaken of both drugs when they go up to his room and he rapes her.
Amat walks in on them, giving Maya the chance to escape, which she takes, running out of the house and making her way home, in the dark, on foot. She just wants to pretend it never happened, but Ana figures out something happened, gets Maya to tell her, and convinces Maya to come forward, saying if she doesn’t, he’ll just do it to someone else.
So Maya tells her parents, who take her to the police station and the hospital to file her report and put together a rape kit. By this time, it’s a week later and the day of the big final game, and the police just happen to be in time to take Kevin off the bus before the big game, which they then lose.
You can guess what happens next: everyone rallies around Kevin and attacks Maya. The police investigation is eventually closed due to a lack of evidence.
I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by Backman’s handling of the issue. It’s not often you find a man who understands what it’s like to be raped and then blamed for the rape. I think the one thing he might have gotten wrong was Maya’s ability to take advantage of Amat walking in on them and fight her way out of there. I’ve heard accounts from survivors who talk about feeling like they left their body during the rape as a self-defense mechanism, in which case I don’t think they would be able to take advantage of an interruption.
On the other hand, everyone reacts differently, so it’s entirely possible that it could work out the way Backman described, but it felt to me like he was trying a little too hard to paint a picture of a girl fighting tooth and nail. Every time a girl gets raped, people ask if she fought hard enough or why she didn’t fight, when the fact is many women don’t fight at all, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t raped.
Another member of my book club felt like Maya was defined by the rape, but I disagree. To me, she felt like a fully fleshed-out character who loves her best friend and her parents and music and has had to deal with the trauma of losing an older brother, as well as her parents’ trauma of having lost a child. I think my fellow reader may have felt the way she did simply because the book is centered on the event, but there is a brief description of their lives 10 years down the road, in which Maya is a famous musician who is selling out stadiums. It’s clear she never forgets the incident (which is also what I’ve heard from survivors), but I don’t think Backman defined her by that one experience.
While I have really enjoyed Backman’s other books, I found it hard to get through this one. He had a few points he wanted to make so he just beat the reader over the head with them again, and again, and again. The point about hockey being more than “just a game” and the obsession over kicking out Sune are just two examples of that, and that comprises most of them because Backman really didn’t have anything new to say with this book. He was just trying SO HARD to be poignant, but the repetition he employed only served to make it cliched and annoying, rather than having the effect he wanted.
One thing my book club all agreed on was that this book did not need a sequel.
What did you read this week? Anything else about which you had mixed feelings?