“We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.”
A Man Called Ove is the debut novel of Fredrik Backman that was translated into English in 2013. It is the darkly comedic story of a grumpy old man with a rigorous schedule and unflinching principles who gropes with grief, self-reflection, and life.
We first meet Ove in the story when he is attempting to purchase an iPad. Everyone either knows someone personally or has had a run in with a man like Ove – curt, inflexible, ignorant of technology, and fearful of change. As someone who has worked in customer service for a long time, I mentally groaned at the sales transaction between the young salesperson and Ove in the story. Dealing with someone that is incredibly difficult and unwilling to understand can be taxing.
Through a series of interspersed flashbacks, Backman peels back the layers of a seemingly uncomplicated man to show you the love, tumult, complacency, and sorrow of his youth that built up the man that we see in the novel. Through the interactions with Ove’s neighbors we see how he is disliked for his rigidity; his confrontation of “the men in white shirts” we see how he is uncomfortable with authority; his strained interaction with children we see his conflicted nature. He has a set of rules in his mind that dictate his behavior or his judgement of character. For Ove it is easier to assign value to things that he understands than to work to develop relationships with people or things that are unfamiliar. The beauty of this novel is that those around Ove force him into uncomfortable situations until his guard is relaxed enough to enjoy a life without his wife.
Backman’s story is really a testament to the scars life leaves on you. For the older it is a cautionary tale not to let the difficulties of your past harden you to the joys of the present; to the young it beckons you not to judge someone who seems apathetic in their old age because they probably experienced a great deal of suffering in their time.
As of writing this I have not watched the film adaptation of this novel but I hope to in the future. It is a really important piece of fiction that can aid in the empathy for the curmudgeon in your life.