Book Review: Beartown – the quietly unassuming novel

Image: Pixabay

For a long time, I haven’t been so taken away by a book. I am a sucker for reading books I know are good due to their reputation, but I decided to read a book which hasn’t had the grand reception of other leading titles.

I was quite blown away by the premise and central message behind this book, which came as a reminder to myself to branch out and read lesser known titles. For once – this book has warranted an entire post by itself!

Beartown revolves around its surroundings – the geography and nature of the small, isolated hockey town, nestled in the icy depths of a Swedish forest, forms an essential part of the novel. The story is narrated through its various inhabitants, each paragraph takes on the perspective of a different character. At first, I found this format quite hard to keep track of but as the novel wore on and I got more familiar with the characters, I came to appreciate it more. The structure of the narration fits in with the centrality of community in Beartown and how nobody in the town has secrets or can live in complete isolation. They are all, in some way, bound to each other in some relation.

Hockey has central importance – at first, it is outlined as the running economic force behind the entire town. Due to its isolation and harsh climate, Beartown has little else to offer economically – the hockey industry is its saving grace. In some ways, it is a complete necessity. However, hockey also becomes the reason for its downfall. Hockey and community become completely intertwined in the novel, as “community” is the binding force behind the residents in Beartown – nobody would do anything to break that force – even for social justice to flourish.

The novel hints at the idea of how a community force can be potentially disruptive, even dangerous, when a sudden and unexpected, brutal crime takes place, perpetrated by a member of the town’s prized hockey team. Because everyone is intertwined and dependent on hockey to serve and maintain the community, the players, the managers and the investors all try to hide what happened. The lines between justice and injustice get blurred and members seem to be blinded by the actuality of what is going on around them. Community, rather than justice, is the force that is preserved.

“But they’re all silent. Because that’s easier.

Not only is this crime ignored by most, but residents in their defense of their humble “community” appear to be in the dark about other related social problems which feature heavily in the novel. Told through a range of character perspectives; the novel points to the issues of teenage mental health, rape culture and alcoholism – and how they can become so prevalent in small, rural communities. It feels like the novel is trying to make a critique of the concept of “community” and all the glamour and perfection which was presented at the beginning. At first, the community seemed humble, full of friendship, love and commitment. But as the novel unravels it is presented to the reader that it is all an image, a facade for what is simmering underneath.

“Difficult questions, simple answers. What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”

A small town in rural Sweden, nestled between a vast and beautiful forest, at a glance seems idyllic, even desirable for most of us who live in busy towns. We tend to look at small town communities in wonder. However, this novel pays homage to the idea that nothing is ever perfect or what it seems. The grass is always greener in our imagination.

As the novel draws to a close, a small sense of justice and re-evaluation is gained by some residents of the town. Some are beginning to question the nature of their community and realise that things have to change. But others simply move away from the town and do not address the problems they helped to create.

I found this novel to have a very profound and relevant message, presented in a very complex way. It deals with some central social issues such as homophobia, alcoholism, rape culture and loneliness – but in such a subtle way that the reader becomes invested in the people rather than the big issues at large. The criticism is subtle but prolific, and one that is entirely relevant.

4/5

I hope this post does not read too cryptically, but it is hard to write about this novel without giving the main event away!

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