Monday, May 11, 2015

'A Man Called Ove' by Fredrik Backman


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 19 - A book which has been translated from another language.
This story was originally written in Swedish, and I can understand why it's been translated to English and become a word-of-mouth sensation.  

 In this bestselling and delightfully quirky debut novel from Sweden, a grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him "the bitter neighbor from hell." But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Fredrik Backman's novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful and charming exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others.


Ove is introduced as the quintessential grumpy old man. He has recently lost his one big reason for living, his wife, Sonja. His main goal now is to do away with himself in the most efficient way possible. However, his neighbours, from a new family who just moved in all the way down to a stray cat, unintentionally prove to him that life still has meaning, and he keeps having to put off his big deed.

From the first few chapters, I expected that Ove would annoy me. He's the sort of person positive living articles warn us to steer clear of, because they're happiness suckers. Not content to gripe about what's right in front of him, Ove walks around looking for things to give him more fuel. And he's the type who only has bad things to say about progress because he can't understand it. He treats the internet (capital I for him) like the enemy.

Before long, I was amused by the grains of truth in his observations. It was fun to see what he'd come up with next. People may call sarcasm the lowest form of wit, yet sometimes sarcasm and cynicism can work to lighten our moods more than cheery platitudes. That's the sort of book this is. And it's worth contemplating some of his reflections, such as 'nowadays, people changed their stuff so often that any expertise in making things last was becoming superfluous. Quality - no-one cared about that anymore.'

The flashback chapters reveal the making of the man. They are the ones which begin, 'A man who was Ove'. His admirable, hard-working father died while Ove was in his teens, and remained his role model. As his dad was one in a million, Ove found it easy to compare others unfavourably to him as people with bad work ethics who didn't do the right thing. Although it wasn't stated outright, I began to sense what it is about Ove. He's conscientious, and resolved to do the right thing himself, but expecting the same behaviour from others may be his downfall. Perhaps being a crusader in the 21st century is setting yourself up for disappointment. Other characters, especially Sonja, accepted the flawed world and decided to make the best of it anyway. It's interesting to compare their happiness levels, quality of their lives and outlooks, and wonder if it's simply because of this decision.

I like the way the nature of friendship is presented. You don't have to be on complete, best buddy type terms of intimacy to be considered a friend. This comes across when Parveneh, his pregnant Iranian neighbour, and Adrian, the delivery boy, both say, 'Me and Ove are sort of mates,' much to his surprise. Small gestures aren't any less meaningful than large ones. In fact, to earn the grudging respect of somebody like Ove is a treasure. Parveneh accepts her loveliest compliment from him, 'You are not a complete twit.'

Ove doesn't undergo a dramatic personality change, like Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge. On the surface, he's pretty much the same at the end of the book as he is at the start, but that's part of the beauty of this story. It indicates that the gold was always there, you just have to persevere at tapping away. That turns out to be not as hard as people may expect. I love his relationships with the cat, with Jimmy, the young, tech-savvy neighbour who has a bit of a weight problem, and most of all with Rune, the man who'd caused him so much irritation, but who, deep down, was one of his best friends.

The quality of writing contains some gems, making us nod because we know exactly what he means. Ove's opinion of people in positions of authority is an example. 'White shirts, empty eyes, nothing but shiny shells, walking around, grinding at normal people and pulling their lives to pieces.'

4.5 stars


  1. Absolutely the best book I have read in my life. It just goes to show that one person can change the world

    1. Hi Sallie,
      I agree it was a very well-written (and translated) sensitive book. I'm looking out for other novels by Fredrik Backman now.