A Man Called Ove
There is a lot of great Scandinavian fiction out there right now, so I was excited to hear about a novel from an author unfamiliar to me . A Man Called Ove is written by Swedish author, Fredrik Backman. I was looking for something on the lighter side. I like quirky, and I love European fiction. I had finished Jonas Jonasson’s book, The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and I had enjoyed The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna.
Ove is a cranky old man who lives by himself. Recently widowed, he can’t seem to connect with anyone else, nor does he especially want to. He is lost without his wife Sonja, who brought color and life to Ove’s regimented black-and-white world. He can’t see any point in going on without Sonja, and methodically plans how to kill himself. However, circumstances keep intervening, and time after time, Ove’s plans for suicide are interrupted, due to a young family that has just moved in next door, upsetting Ove’s inflexible rules and routines, and unconsciously insinuating themselves into Ove’s life. The mother, in particular, seems oblivious to Ove’s grumpiness, and Ove finds himself being gradually absorbed into her family. He finds an unexpected lease on life, no longer trying to leave it. Fences with old foes are mended, new ties are forged, and the ending, while bittersweet, is heartwarming. There are a few nice little twists along the way, but I don’t want to give them away!
Ove is a stand-up honest guy who will always do the right thing, and he dedicates his life to fighting against “the men in white shirts”, the pencil-pushing bureaucracy. I love the metaphor of Ove’s colorless world being contrasted with the color that his wife Sonja brings, and this comes up in a variety of ways throughout the novel.
But?? Do you sense a “but”? Remember the movie “Up”, with the grumpy widowed old man, the little boy, and the house held aloft with balloons? That was heartwarming too, but not trite. And while there are some wonderful moments in A Man Called Ove, they are overcome with the quirkiness factor. Too much quirk!
What really disappointed me was the use of suicide attempts as a plot device. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery turned me off for the same reason. If I want to read about a suicidal character, I’m going to read something like The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, or La Petite by Michele Halberstadt. Ove attempts suicide five different times, each with a different method: I actually made a list of these. Suicide does not equal cute and quirky, at least in my opinion.
I may be biased, as I do tend to prefer darker novels, and there are so many great books by Scandinavian authors available. For example, I recently enjoyed Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll; I love anything by Per Petterson, and I am slowly working through Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I also love Jo Nesbo’s novels. Although A Man Called Ove is not my cup of tea, I do think it may appeal to others.
~ Lysbeth Abrams