A Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman

Cover image

Translator: Henning Koch
Publisher: Washington Square
Copyright: 2012, 2014
Printing: May 2015
ISBN: 1-4767-3802-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 337

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Ove is 59 years old and drives a Saab. He's grumpy, often taciturn, very particular in how things should be done, and extremely judgmental about how other people do them. He is the sort of person who regularly rants about how poorly things are done these days and how much better they used to be. Ove does not like change.

A Man Called Ove opens with him terrorizing the employees of an Apple Store, trying to buy a computer, but this incident is actually foreshadowing, and will only make sense at the very end of the book. The story actually begins in the second chapter, with Ove making his morning rounds of the neighborhood in which he lives, discovering an out-of-place bicycle and a mangy cat, and then starting to put a hook in his ceiling. But just as he's getting started, he's interrupted by new neighbors, who are incapable of backing up a trailer properly without scraping it against his house. Not that motor vehicles are allowed in the area anyway.

That inauspicious beginning changes Ove's life, mostly through the sheer persistence of other people's disasters. It's not obvious at first that it will, and at the start A Man Called Ove could be a funny collection of stories about a curmudgeon. But as Backman shows more of Ove's life and tells more of his background and situation, it becomes something so much more, something satisfying and heart-breaking and deeply human.

I've been struggling to review this book because I find it hard to capture what makes it so wonderful. Making that even harder, several key plot elements are introduced gradually in the story in ways that add a lot to the rhythm of the plot, and I don't want to spoil them. I think the closest I can get in a spoiler-free review is that A Man Called Ove is about empathy. It's about human connection, even when people seem unlikable, unreachable, or angrily off-putting. And it's a book about seeing the best inside other people, and about finding ways to be persistently oneself while still changing enough to find new connections, and about recognizing those moments when someone is showing you their best without getting caught up on the surface presentation.

The man Ove is the center of this story, the subject of tight third person perspective for nearly all of the book. He's 59 when the story opens, but by the end of the book, mostly through flashback chapters, the reader knows his childhood and early adulthood and much of the story of his marriage. At first, he seems to be an obnoxious, surly, angry curmudgeon, the sort of old man who yells at clouds. But the joy of this book is how the reader's perception changes, how one gains sympathy, and then respect, first for Ove's unshakable inner sense of morality that he got from his father and then for his rule-based approach to how the world should work. One never entirely agrees with him, but Backman demystifies and explains Ove's thought process and ties it into a different generation and a different way of interacting with work (although Ove was still uncommon even in his youth, just not as unique).

As I write this review, news and opinion in the United States are very focused on the plight of the white working class and how that does or does not explain recent election results. Backman is Swedish (I read this book in translation), so it's not coming from US culture and the cultural fault lines are not quite the same. But I think this book says something deeply valuable and fascinating about the working-class culture of Ove's youth, something that's much less about specific politics and much more about how it feels to make things with one's hands, to build or rebuild one's own house, or to work for thirty years at the same job and not be interested in a promotion to management. Backman does a truly spectacular job conveying the sense of angry frustration at the changes in work and life, the difficulty communicating one's internal feelings meaningfully, and the quiet joy of finding those places in life where one can do things properly.

Ove is, of course, not the only character in this book, and every character here is a delight in their own idiosyncratic ways. The main story arc involves the various people in his neighborhood, particularly his new next-door neighbors: a pregnant Iranian woman and her very laid-back husband who is incapable of doing things around the house but keeps trying. I think Parvaneh, the woman, is my favorite character of the story except for Ove, and it's fitting that she's the first to work out the broad outlines of what's happening in Ove's life and the tricky path to effectively helping him. In a way, she's Ove's opposite: fiery, mercurial, talkative, and meddling. But she sees things in Ove that no one else seems to notice. (And the scene between her and Ove when she's learning to drive is a thing of beauty.)

This is a book that could have been extremely sad, and yet isn't. It's a book about somber, depressing topics that somehow manages to be delightfully funny. And it's about a curmudgeon who persistently fails to have any sort of stereotyped heart of gold, but is nonetheless one of the most satisfying, fascinating, ethical, and good-willed characters I've ever read about. It manages to treat a collection of very different characters with individualized deep empathy and appreciation, while never pushing them all into the same mold. And the ending is wonderful.

I rarely read slice of life stories, but this one is worth making an exception for. It's one of the best books I've ever read. Highly, highly recommended.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-12-24

Last modified and spun 2016-12-25