My review of Us Against You by Fredrik Backman first appeared in Shelf Awareness for the Professional Trade (so it’s a little longer than most of my Shelf reviews). It was then a starred review in the Readers edition. I’m posting it today with their permission.
First line: “Have you ever seen a town fall?”
With each new book, Fredrik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove, Britt-Marie Was Here and Beartown, manages to raise the stakes of exceptionalism. Through Backman’s astute examination of humanity, Us Against You will elicit snickers and full-blown belly laughs. It will rip out hearts, then replace them stronger than before. Most of all, it is sure to prompt readers to examine their lives in order to be better people, if only in microscopic ways.
The depth of this sequel to Beartown seems endless, encouraging several readings. Just one is insufficient to luxuriate in Backman’s splendid style and still catch the multitude of wise gems nestled into this dynamic novel masking itself as an enchanting tale of a hockey team and its community.
Backman’s omniscient narrator, a resident of Beartown, explains a major theme: “The truth about most people is as simple as it is unbearable: we rarely want what is best for everyone. We mostly want what’s best for ourselves.” Through a series of events involving a range of believably flawed characters and a struggling hockey team, this theme is reinforced repeatedly.
Peter, the club’s general manager, was forced to make an unimaginable decision at the conclusion of Beartown. The fallout from that decision opens Us Against You: the town’s hockey program is dangerously close to bankruptcy; its demise appears inevitable. That is, until an anonymous new sponsor offers to save the team–with certain stipulations.
Ana, a teenager who lives with her father in Beartown, feels more comfortable in the forest than anywhere else. Her father’s alcoholism demands she assume the responsibilities of an adult long before any child should. And her best friend’s struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder require Ana’s empathy, support and love. She regularly gives of herself, but in a moment of weakness triggered by hurt and embarrassment, Ana makes a choice that throws the town into violent turmoil.
Richard Theo is a politician who presents himself as an advocate for his constituents but is ultimately and deceitfully advancing his own agenda. He knows that “political elections are simple: when everything is going well, when people are happy, then the establishment wins. But when people are angry and arguing, people like Richard Theo win. Because for an outsider to win power requires a conflict. But if there’s no conflict? Then you have to create one.” Theo creates more than one.
Backman juggles these characters, as well as four teenage boys who battle to bring together the Beartown hockey A-team, and a gang of supporters who aren’t opposed to violence to get what they want. His balancing act is masterfully executed with empathy, humor and ingenuity, emphasized by the pitch-perfect portrait of a tired, crumbling small town. Fans of Backman will not be disappointed. His work continues to amaze and captivate, enlighten and thrill. Those unfamiliar with his novels need to pick them up posthaste; Us Against You is a perfect one to grab.