A Man Called Over by Frederick Backman; Trans. Henning Koch, book review

A tale that tugs on the heart strings

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 10 July 2014 16:43 BST

Since 2009, the performance company Station House Opera has taken its Dominoes project around Europe, assembling thousands of breezeblocks across cities only to then set them tumbling in a huge moving sculpture.

From Copenhagen and Helsinki, to Dijon, Ljubljana, and most recently Coventry, it's a performance that seems both to resonate with the contemporary climate of economic crashes and instability, while at the same time suggesting all is not lost as the communities the blocks wind their way through are brought together in order to create the visual spectacle.

A Man Called Ove, Swedish blogger Fredrik Backman's first novel, has something of these dominoes in book form. Backman's tale of 59-yea-old curmudgeon, Ove, not only captured the hearts of Backman's fellow Swedes, but has also swept across Europe as a word-of-mouth best-seller; a domino effect that suggests community spirit and social responsibility isn't quite so lacking as we're often told it is.

Ove is a man of few words, and those he does utter are mostly dismissive and accusatory. He holds himself "in that particular way of a middle-aged man who expects the worthless world outside to disappoint him". Ove is altogether more Carl Fredricksen from Up than Victor Meldrew, though, and it's not just that he lacks Meldrew's loquaciousness. The novel treads similar ground to the Disney Pixar film – Ove's an old fashioned gent; a man who can "take responsibility for things and fix a water heater if necessary," but to whom fate has dealt more than his fair share of cruel blows, ultimately leaving him facing retirement as a lonely widower. When a new family moves in opposite, Ove's solitude is shattered.

It's fairly easy to guess what happens next, but the predictability of Backman's story is part of its charm. While there may be a young gay man turfed out of his home by his homophobic father, and a chain-smoking, Skoda-driving council bureaucrat attempting to take an Alzheimer's sufferer into care despite the patient's wife's protests, Ove's world is still a somewhat Disneyfied version of reality. A landscape that's reflected in Backman's prose, the journalist in him avoiding anything akin to hyperbole. On occasion the slightly repetitive tone becomes cloying, but Backman can tickle the funny bone and tug on the heart strings when he needs to, and is a clever enough storyteller to not overindulge in either.

For those of you who don't want your fiction to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, A Man Called Ove isn't for you. Yet it's surprisingly cheering to think how many people have embraced this simple but heartwarming novel.

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