‘A Man Called Ove’ by Fredrik Backman – Highly Recommended.

Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He isn’t as young as he used to be. He drives a Saab. He points at people he doesn’t like the look of. He is described by those around his as ‘the neighbour from hell’.Every morning he makes his inspection rounds of the local streets. He moves bicycles and checks the contents of recycling bins, even though it’s been years since he was fired as Chairman of the Residents’ Association in a vicious ‘coup d’état’.

But behind the surly pedant there is a story, and a sadness. And when on a November morning his new (foreign) neighbours in the terraced house opposite accidentally flatten Ove’s letterbox, it sets off a comical and heart-warming tale of unexpected friendship which will change one man – and one community – from their very foundations. 

My introduction to Fredrick Backman was his wonderful, ‘My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry’, which was filled with strong characters and challenging ideas, bound together by a little bit of hope and a lot of compassion. It’s still one of my favourite books. 

A Man Called Ove‘ was Backman’s debut novel. I hesitated to read it in case it was just an inferior version of ‘My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry’, written by an author who had still to find his feet, with the focus on a grumpy old man rather on a grandmother-behaving-badly.

What pulled me towards the book was the whole grumpy-old-man trope. I was already grumpy when I was middle-aged twenty years ago and the world has not improved since then. Now that I’m actually old, I’m interested to see how men like me are portrayed in fiction.

Now that I’ve read the book, I’d say that Fredrick Backman nailed it, which is remarkable, given that he was barely forty when he wrote the book.

According to Wikipedia:

“Backman got his inspiration for this book after reading an article about a man named Ove who had a fit while buying tickets at an art museum. Backman instantly related to this man as he claims to be “not great at talking to people”. He started writing blogposts under the heading, “I am a Man Called Ove”, where he wrote about his pet peeves and annoyances. Eventually, he realized that his writing had potential for the creation of an interesting fictional character.

Wikipedia ‘A Man Called Ove – Novel’

I wondered if this meant that the book would be a series of sketches. At first, it seemed that that might be the case. The early chapters are amusing, even though they involve Ove constantly being thwarted in his efforts to end his life, because they capture perfectly the small rages and habit-fed obsessions of an older man that I’m familiar with in myself. But it’s the backstory that makes the book fly. In between episodes showing Ove’s reluctant and often angry engagement with his daily life, Backman reveals Ove’s backstory and in doing so he turns Ove from a comic archetype into a person.

As I learned about Ove’s life, I came to understand that Ove is who he has always been but that the world has changed, turning his strengths into eccentricities. Most importantly I understood that Ove’s wife was the one who illumined his life and made it worth living. To me, choosing to leave a world that you feel out of step with and a life which no longer includes the one person who brought you joy and made you feel seen, made perfect sense.

I was delighted by the way Backman slowly and plausibly pulled Ove back into the world, initially against his will, by presenting him with things that needed to be fixed and that no one around him seemed capable of getting right. Eventually, his irritation and anger led to new connections and new reasons to stay a little longer. What made it work for me was that Ove didn’t change. He didn’t let go of his eccentricities/strengths. He didn’t miss his wife less. He didn’t even like (most) people any more than he ever had. He just found people who needed him and valued him and restored his sense of being at home.

For me, this is the perfect kind of feel-good story: it was based on hope and love but it was honest about all the things and people who conspire every day to leach those things out of our lives.

I recommend the audiobook version of ‘A Man Called Ove’ which is narrated by Joan Walker. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

In 2015, ‘A Man Called Ove‘ was made into a movie, starring Rolf Lassgård and directed by Hannes Holm who co-wrote the screenplay with Fredrik Backman. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and was the highest-grossing foreign film of 2016 in the United States. I watched it after I read the book and I thought it was wonderful. Here’s the trailer:

4 thoughts on “‘A Man Called Ove’ by Fredrik Backman – Highly Recommended.

  1. Sold! I love the sound of this book and have added it to my tbr list. Thanks Mike, I hadn’t heard any mention before, but good to know we are perhaps panning in different places.

    Liked by 1 person

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