Review: A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am not afraid to die. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not courting death. It’s just that I’m not actually afraid of what comes after death. After I shuffle off this mortal coil, I imagine I will be beyond all caring and hurt. In fact, I don’t think I’ll be aware at all.

“We fear [death], yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.” (p 325)

The thought of my own death leaves me a little sad – I hate missing out on things – but not at all afraid. The thought of losing the love of my life, though? That is the scariest thing I can imagine. To be left behind, having to deal with the whole world all by myself? No, thank you. I can barely get by for more than a couple of days without him here to share the daily load.

Perhaps this is why A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman had such an emotional impact on me. By the end of the third chapter, I started marking lines that brought tears to my eyes—twenty-five, for those who are wondering. I made the following note at the end of chapter three, as well. This man and his sad life are so well established by this time. And it’s clear what has happened and what may happen without either being directly mentioned.

I’m a sucker for strong voice and figurative language, and this book has both in spades. Although the first chapter uses the phrase “as if” often enough that it becomes slightly tedious, I love how Beckman’s descriptions stand just to the side of what I expect, holding a bouquet of fresh-cut snark.

“… the doctor sighs again in that way young doctors … often do when confronted by people who do not even have the common bloody decency to attend medical school before they come to the hospital.” (p 328)

Throughout the story, it is possible to hear both what Ove means to say and how his words might be heard by someone who doesn’t understand him. This creates a complex and captivating narrative.

There’s a dryness, a way of saying things without quite saying them, here that I’ve noticed in other books by Swedish authors (ex: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson). Backman doesn’t spell out each event in Ove’s life, often giving only a hint of what has occurred. This gives the reader a sense that they are respected, trusted to be smart enough to read between the lines. It takes an incredible talent to know which details are necessary to allow the reader to truly connect with a story and which can be omitted. My note at the end of chapter four reads Damn. I want to write FEELS like this—capture emotion so completely while avoiding all mention of it. Amazing.

“And that laughter of hers, which, for the rest of his life, would make him feel as if someone was running around barefoot in his chest.” (p 79)

I can relate to the bond between Ove and Sonya from both perspectives. The man I love—while not curmudgeonly—doesn’t fit neatly into societal expectations. I, myself, often rub people the wrong way with my strongly held opinions and failure to follow feminine norms. This book captures the challenges and wonder of finding someone who loves even the less-than-lovable parts of you and who balances out your quirks. It describes the emptiness of life without that person beautifully.

“People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” (p 45)

The plot of A Man Called Ove isn’t anything revolutionary. It’s the story of how life shapes a person and how accepting the shape of others can bring you joy. It’s the story of love and loss and relearning how to move through the world when life changes around you.

“Ove is the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.” (p 7)

He’s that one neighbor who keeps himself to himself except when complaining about how others fail to meet his expectations, forcing you to come up with your own theories as to why he’s so crotchety. Because this story is told from Ove’s point of view, we get to see, hear and feel the truth behind Ove’s unpleasantness, slowly learning the real story behind his evolution into official neighborhood curmudgeon.

I have only one small problem with A Man Called Ove. The main character is described as fifty-nine years old, but he seems more like he’s in his early- to mid-seventies. He’s a strong, hearty man who is strongly set in his ways—ways that were developed in a simpler time, morally and technologically. This may be a cultural difference (although I suspect the average 59-year-old Swede is in much better shape than the average 59-year-old American) or it may be something that was changed in translation (perhaps for that exact reason). I don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t a big enough problem to make me pass on the book.

There are a great number of side characters in this book, Ove’s many neighbors, who appreciate or resent him to varying degrees. I’ve read reviews that criticized these characters for being the “obvious choices” and there’s some truth to that—yes, there is a similarly crotchety stray cat and a precocious child and a nosy lady next door—but I found them all relate-able, if not super unique. As the story progresses, you find out tidbits about each person and how they came to be part of Ove’s life. By the end of the book, I felt as though I lived in one of the little houses in Ove’s carefully maintained neighborhood, knowing that I would be accepted for who I am, although I’m quite sure Ove would have something to say about my choice in automobile. With any luck, I’d also live well enough to earn the highest praise Ove is heard to give …

“YOU ARE NOT A COMPLETE IDIOT.” (p 336)

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