The first thing you notice about “The Winners,” Fredrik Backman’s conclusion to the “Beartown” trilogy, is that it’s huge—over 650 pages. But that’s because Backman has a lot to tell us, and we are immediately immersed in the small towns of Beartown and Hed, it’s neighboring town, watching as hockey brings the townspeople together and almost destroys them. Backman excels at displaying the extremes of human emotions through his at-times visceral narrative.
Backman’s writing is lyrical as we hear the narrative through a plural entity that is like a voice for the town. And he doesn’t pull any punches. This is not a story with twists and turns; he flat out tells us what the future will bring. The first sentence is, “Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending.” So there you have it; you’ve been warned. And if that wasn’t enough, the last sentence of that half-page first chapter warns us that, “Boys like Benji die young. They die violently.”
And we love Benji, so from the very first page, our hearts are broken. Backman writes frankly about Benji, his hopes and dreams, and makes us fall completely in love with Benji, just as many of the other characters in the story do, before he meets his tragic, heroic end. And there are many, many admirable characters in the story. We know most of them from the first two books, but even if you haven’t read those, Backman explains enough that this book could actually be read as a stand alone novel.
And as usual, Backman has much to tell us about life and love and hate. There’s a lot of hatred in Beartown and Hed, these two towns whose hockey rivalry is intense—beyond intense—cruel and at times violent. We meet Johnny and Hannah from Hed, and we get to know lawyer Kira and her husband Peter, the former general manager of the Beartown hockey club, and their children. Maya, their oldest, is especially important; in the first book, she’s raped by the star hockey player from Beartown. No one wants to believe her because in Beartown, hockey is everything. We read about a similar event that happens to another teenager and the devastating effect it has on her younger brother and eventually, the town.
Backman presents us with not-the-best of humans, but close, and not-the-worst of humans, but close — because he knows none of us is perfect even when we try to be. We see bad guys with tender spots and good guys who let bad things happen. Other things that Backman gets just right are our relationships with our children. While many of the novel’s characters grow up with parents who are fairly negligent and sometimes abusive, we see clearly that even the best of parents make mistakes, falter at times, and say or do the wrong thing. But the difference is that with loving but imperfect parents, the love for their children shines through in spite of any missteps or mistakes. So Peter and Kira have two children who know they are loved in spite of their parents’ faults, as does Amat, whose mother, from the other, poorer side of town, loves him deeply.
Backman manages to tell us what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future, and he does it in a seemingly effortless manner. He doesn’t make us wonder if Maya will make it as a singer; he tells us she will. So there aren’t many surprises, just a lot of reflection about the nature of men and women, and how easily our emotions can be stoked to hate “the others.” In Beartown, they hate those from Hed, even though they are pretty much the same. They are all Swedish and from tiny, rural towns only a few miles apart. There is also typical small-town bigotry towards people from other countries and people who aren’t heterosexual.
Backman emphasizes that much of what people become depends on where and to whom they are born. We see that emphasis in even this small town; those from the Hollows have fewer opportunities than those who are born in the Heights. Family is important to Backman. He writes, “Everyone I know with any sense has two families, the one they were given and the one they chose. You can’t do anything about the first, but you can damn well take responsibility for the second.” This is Ramona, the owner of the bar, who exhorts her friend Teemu to behave well and make his followers do the same. There are two thugs in the book who don’t have hearts of gold, but rather small pieces of goodness; and we see respected politicians who appear benevolent, but are more ruthless than any thug.
Backman presents, through a girl’s diary, what women have been saying about rape and society and why so many men feel invincible. He points out that in elementary school, when boys tease girls and pull their hair, adults laugh and say that it just means the boy likes the girl. Ruth, the raped girl, writes in her diary, “That’s how you teach boys that they have rights over us. Then we get bigger and then they rape us…” She continues, “Parents always think they have to talk to their daughters about guys. But you don’t have to talk to us about guys because we already know all that, for fuck’s sake, because we’re the ones they rape!! Talk to your damn sons instead!!! Teach them to talk to each other and teach them to stop each other. Raise just one fucking boy somewhere who can become a head teacher who understands that when boys pull girls by the hair, it’s the fucking boys there’s something wrong with.”
Backman understands that our children are the hope for the future. And while one of the points he emphasizes is that no matter what, life goes on, he also makes sure to let us know that one of the children in Beartown will grow up to be a shining light for others. And while we may lose those we love dearly, we also can be inspired by that loss to be better people, to work for a better future. This novel is a complicated trilogy conclusion, filled with enough action for three books, but it all works together effectively and movingly. You’ll feel better for having read it and having contemplated and been inspired by the messages that Backman offers in these many pages.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.