BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE (2015)
By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 324 pp.
* * * ½
Let's see, a sometimes-cranky central character with OCD who is often unintentionally funny. Swedish author Fredrik Backman is on dangerous turf here; His titular figure in Britt-Marie Was Here is, in many ways, Ove in drag, the latter being the protagonist of his sensational debut A Man Called Ove. I almost set aside Britt-Marie, but luckily I persevered, as Backman imagines enough side journeys to avoid self-plagiarism.
Britt-Marie takes the biggest journey–away from her regimented suburban routine to the chaotic small town of Borg. Borg is a fictional place that we infer is an hour or so from Stockholm, but you know its type. Borg is a nowhere used-to-be town on the road to somewhere else. Backman describes it thus: "One remarkable thing about communities built along roads is that you can find just as many reasons for leaving them as excuses to stay. Some people never quite stop devoting themselves to one or the other." Think a cross between a town and a village that got kicked in the teeth by late 20th century deindustrialization and then in the gut by the 21st century financial crisis. Even if you live in Borg—a word from Old Norse that translates as stronghold, but also as credit—you know better than to bet dwindling resources on a future recovery. Credit is exactly how many locals survive in Borg. The main business is the local pizzeria, which is akin to a strip mall that also serves as a makeshift grocer, barber, car repair shop, bank, post office, black market, credit agency, and community center. Locals have names, but in such down-on-their-luck places nicknames proliferate: Pirate, Psycho, Bank, or just plain "Someone."
Britt-Marie is there because she's 63-years-old and has just left her husband, Kent, a self-styled "entrepreneur" who spends more time contemplating deals with "the Germans" than paying attention to her. Britt-Marie needs to be needed, but it's been years since Kent appreciated that, and she worries she will die without anyone every having known she existed. So it's off to an employment agency that sends her to Borg, to be the temporary caretaker of a community center slated for budget-cut closure right after the Christmas holiday. Never mind that Britt-Marie hasn't held a formal job since her youth, that her skills center mostly on cleaning, that that she believes a person's character cam be discerned from how he or she organizes their cutlery drawers, that she talks to a rat, or that she is sorely lacking in anything resembling people skills. Oddly, though, the children of Borg are drawn to her, as is a local police officer, Sven. Against all odds, Britt-Marie becomes immersed in the kids' soccer skirmishes, though she hasn't the slightest interest or knowledge of the game, and is appalled by untidy uniforms. ("Skirmish" is the best word for how these blue-collar throwaways play!)
As it transpires, Britt-Marie isn't the only one with offbeat ideas about human nature; most of the locals think you can tell all you need to know from which English football team a person supports. (Manchester United wins so much that its fans think both the team and they deserve to triumph continually. Liverpool supporters are the great middle: people who neither dazzle nor disappoint in big way. Aston Villa followers are just perverse!) That Britt-Marie should find herself the center of soccer madness is unexpected, unorthodox, and affecting. As in A Man Called Ove, Backman's soccer ball of circumstances careens over improbable turf, and when we least expect it, it poignantly rises and smacks us in the forehead. Okay—forced analogy. Guilty! But the point is that we, as readers, end up caring about characters that we'd otherwise ignore, just as we'd normally lock the car doors and made haste through towns like Borg. Above all, we care about how Britt-Marie resolves her own late-life existential crisis.
Britt-Marie Was Here is ultimately about the search for grace in its various guises. It is a deeply satisfying read that is, at turns, funny, melancholic, profound, and a bit contrived. We can forgive the small slips because Backman never stoops to pat answers and leaves us with just enough ambiguity to feel hopeful, but slightly unsure that we should. Rob Weir