A Review of Fredrik Backman’s “Us Against You”
As I write these words, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are in full swing — though the timing of these playoffs has always struck me as odd as there’s no longer any snow on the ground. Anyhow, if you’re looking for another dose of hockey during this season of sudden death elimination, you may want to pick up Fredrik Backman’s latest novel, Us Against You. Set in the small Swedish burg of Beartown, the book follows a hockey team as it struggles to survive. At the novel’s opening, the daughter, Maya, of the general manager, Peter, of the Beartown hockey team has been raped and one of the team’s player’s, Kevin, did it. People take sides, with a very vocal group of hooligans known as “the Pack” taking Maya’s side, which allows Peter to keep his job. However, as a result of the controversy, the hockey team is on the verge of bankruptcy and most of the team’s players have moved over to playing with the team in a neighbouring town called Hed. It takes a rather unusual politician to start making backroom moves to save the club in order to further his election bid. However, once a team gets assembled and the regular season looms, the team is to play their Hed rivals as the first game of the season. Tragedy occurs as a result, but some good things happen to characters, too.
If the words “baggy and digressive” were ever meant to describe a novel, then they would for this book. Us Against You is a loooong book. Minor characters keep on getting introduced, and it should come as no surprise that, by novel’s end, there are multiple endings as Backman tries to tie all of the loose ends together. That is probably the book’s only failing, as this is an impeccably written work that explores the love and passion, and the sense of community, that goes into what some people may scoff at as being “only a game.” Hockey rules the world of Beartown, so when things start to happen on the ice, they naturally have a spillover effect off the ice — particularly in terms of how small-town politics are carried out.
There are a few surprises in Us Against You. One of the Beartown star hockey players gets outed as being gay, and a community that isn’t used to dealing with people “like him” suddenly have to find a way to grapple with it. Backman realistically paints the character as someone who gets a lot of grief handed his way, but, in the end, most people find some way to accept and deal with his gayness in their own ways — making the book oddly sentimental. It turns out that this character’s salvation is hockey: people wind up rallying behind him because, in part, he’s such a good player. Backman writes a convincing and well played out character who has to come to grips with his own sexuality. On that note, Maya’s story is also handled sensitively, and we come to learn how she manages to survive and the alliances she makes as some choose not to believe her. She doesn’t find her passion in hockey, but in Mixed Martial Arts and music, and, she, too, gets a bittersweet ending.
The book leads towards its climactic showdown between the two teams, and if you thought Canadians were the only ones who were hockey-mad — think again. Hockey means everything to the people of the novel — so much so that when Peter is forced to tear down the stands where “the Pack” congregates, it sets off all sorts of complications. However, this isn’t really too much a book about violence in sport. This is really a book about how people in small communities find a rallying point to come together — especially when jobs go to the neighbouring town or people from Beartown have to wait longer for care at the hospital in Hed. Violence is just an outpouring of populist anger and frustration. The inhabitants of Beartown practically put Canadians to shame — it may be our game, but the people of Beartown really make it theirs. Practically everything revolves around the sport, and it’s apt that Peter is seen as something like a god for having played professional hockey in Canada. Canucks, you may have to start worrying — another nationality may just be usurping our sport! In fact, it turns out that Peter is so wrapped up in his hockey world, it is threatening to destroy his marriage!
There’s an interesting narrative tactic in Us Against You. There is a narrator who provides foreshadowing, but just as often offers commentary on the comings and goings of this novel. In a sense, the narrator is a hidden character of the book — someone with just as much personality as the characters, young and old, who populate this book. I was surprised to find out that Backman is just 37 years old, because the narrator feels older and wiser than that. He (assuming the narrator is a he) has a birds-eye view of what happens or is about to happen, and that helps to soften the blow of the novel’s sometimes predictability by leading us onto another narrative thread to delay what’s about to happen in another section of the book.
Overall, I was quite charmed by Us Against You. It is well-written and moves at a leisurely pace — but there might be one other caveat for more ardent sports fans. One thing that I was also taken aback by was the fact that even though this is a book about hockey, it doesn’t get played very much here. In fact, you’re more apt to see characters in practice as you will at an actual game, probably highlighting the work and dedication these characters take in prepping themselves for the final showdown — which, as it turns out, is not really all that surprising. (The outcome is pretty much known, not because it’s revealed in any way, but because the other outcome would be the more predictable route, which makes the real outcome just as predictable.) Still, as a character study and an examination of life in small towns, Us Against You is not meant to be missed. It is largely a sterling, succulent novel meant to be savoured till the last drop. And it is a very good book with hockey as a backdrop. If you’re a sports nut, you’ll probably go ga-ga over this.
Fredrik Backman’s Us Against You was published by Simon & Schuster Canada on September 4, 2018.
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