I wasn’t certain what to expect when I first started reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, despite the fact it came highly recommended to me by a darling friend whose reading choices I always love. The main protagonist, the 59 year-old forcibly retired Ove, seems to possess no redeeming qualities. Rude, prone to shouting and a level of intolerance of others’ failings that’s extraordinary in one who has not only held down a job for thirty-odd years but can also boast a successful marriage, I almost didn’t continue after the opening few pages… he’s just so damn unpleasant. But, there was also something a little familiar about Ove; a sort of defensive masculinity that you sometimes see in men of a certain generation (my father, my grandfather), as not only work, but life can render them redundant; make them feel as if they have no purpose anymore. It makes you want to hug and hold them and remind them of their value, especially when they most push you away. It’s testimony to Backman’s writing that after my initial reservations quickly dissipated, you feel exactly the same way about Ove – even when he shouts and slams doors… maybe even more so.
Page by page, scene by scene, Ove, the very personification of a grumpy old bastard, is gradually revealed to us. The facilitator of this slow stripping of the layers that make up this complex, sad and angry man is a new neighbour, the pregnant “foreigner”,the pragmatic and delightful, Parvaneh and her normal (by-anyone-else’s-standards-other-than-Ove’s) family: her klutzy, gentle husband and two delightful daughters.
Resisting them at first by refusing to use their names and preferring the labels he so readily bestows on everyone to avoid intimacy, and by being a downright curmudgeon, Ove is slowly drawn into their lives and into facing the painful and joyous memories his own has thus far created. The novel then segues between the past and present, unfolding the life of the man called Ove, the morally upright and uptight hardworking grouch who nonetheless captures the heart of the laughing, beautiful and quite wonderful Sonja; the man who defiantly drives a Saab and defends one-eyed emaciated cats, young gay men, and any who find themselves unwitting victims of bureaucracy. We’re introduced to his neighbours, those who enter and exit his life; the hows, whys and wherefores, and suddenly, Ove and his surliness not only make sense but also become both irresistible and essential.
I don’t want to say too much more except that I laughed, cried, sighed, sobbed and had my heart filled and my soul nourished by this unapologetically sentimental but also biting tale of an ordinary man who proves over and over again that what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. Even the similes, which litter the pages with problematic regularity, ceased to bother me as they beautifully and accurately paint not only the colourful picture that is Ove, but his world-view as well.
Part fable, part sardonic treatise on the modern condition and those who recklessly abuse and use it and others, I can’t stop thinking about this gem of a book with hope, community and a man called Ove at its heart.