Saturday, June 28, 2014

Conditions of the Heart

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman


They don't make men like Ove anymore. He's just a man who worked at his job and loved his wife. Now at 59, forced into early retirement not long after his wife died, there nothing left to live for. That's when Ove decides to do something about it, but one thing or another keeps gets in his way.

This is yet another "if you liked the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, you'll love this" book. But just as I noted in my review of The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81, Ove is no Harold Fry, and nor are either of them Frank Derrick. If pressed, I'd say that Ove is more like Harold Fry than Frank Derrick. Of course, the most obvious thing that these three men have in common is that they are older men. Notice I didn't call them "old men" here, because despite whatever ages they may be chronologically, none of them meet my criteria for being totally old. This is mostly because they each have a purpose and each of their stories tells us how they go about trying to achieve what they aim to do. In Ove's case, what he's trying to do is kill himself so he can be reunited with the only person who ever "got" him, his wife Sonja.

Ove is actually the youngest of these three, and despite everything Ove does to keep people at arm's length and even push them away, he's possibly the most likeable of them all. In fact, his angry demeanor, gruff way of speaking, stubbornly opinionated attitudes of right and wrong and distaste for almost everyone and everything "these days" are exactly what make us love him so much. Yes, he can be frustratingly obstinate and often caught in the past with grudges he holds onto with dear life. In fact, most people will only think of him as an angry and bitter man, and keep their distance. But what he doesn't realize is that what endears him to us is that he doesn't sit around and complain; he goes out of his way to do something about the injustice and incompetency he finds around him. In short, he is a truly honest and straightforward man who lives by his principles, even if some of them might seem outdated, old fashioned or just plain stupid.

I should mention that this is a novel translated from the Swedish, but that is the last thing that should put anyone off. The translator here, Henning Koch, has done a beautiful job in bringing all of Backman's charm and humor to the fore; so that we hardly feel that this is a translation at all, and the references to Sweden and its culture are almost totally understandable. In fact, there's only one thing that didn't sit completely right with me, and that is Ove's age and his relationship to today's technology. The story is set in the present decade, and Ove is supposed to be only 59 years old. I find it hard to believe that someone only slightly older than me is so totally clueless regarding computers. Yes, I get that many people my age aren't as computer savvy as I am, but not quite to this extent. Of course, this does fit in with Ove's extremely old fashioned ways, so I'm willing to accept that perhaps there are some people in my age bracket that could be so anti-modernity.

However, this one tiny niggle is the only drawback of this whole book. Backman's story is amazingly engrossing from start to finish, and if you can read the last chapters without shedding a tear (or like me, blubbering like a little baby), then you have the hardest heart of anyone in the universe. And until you get to the end, you'll be giggling like a school-girl if not laughing out loud. All told, I predict that anyone who reads "A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman will fall in love with this story and Ove himself, and for that it deserves a full and hearty five out of five stars! (And I can hardly wait to read his next novel!)


"A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman published July 3, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. A version of this review appears on my Times of Israel blog, which was revised from my review that originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.