A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.
Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?
Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.
When I finished reading this book, I closed it gently, as if the pages were flesh that might be bruised. It was hard to immediately identify the sensation in my chest, then: an exultant, vaulting joy swiftly yanked back by the leash of a sorrow still incipient, a grief that had not sunk in, not just yet. There’s a hollowness in me now, a rawness that only a novel like A Man Called Ove leaves behind.
Backman’s singular novel traces the story of Ove, a cranky 59-year-old Swedish man who has lost his wife, then his job—circumstances which, to him, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. Ove’s first suicide attempt is interrupted by his very pregnant and relentlessly blunt Iranian neighbor, Parvaneh, and her sunny husband who seems determined to aggrieve Ove by not properly parking his car, and later, for the rest of the novel, by a series of comically mundane happenings “that made him sufficiently angry to hold his attention.”
From this deceptively simple premise, Backman crafts a plot so exquisitely intricate and real and fascinating, brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight—all of it adding up to something undeniably poignant but also undeniably pleasant.
Backman takes on themes of love, loss, family, friendships and their risks and rewards, and writes with a confidence and verve that produce magnetic prose and the kind of masterful storytelling that wells up to pull the reader into a unique and unforgettable experience. It’s probably not the best reading material for your commute because you’ll undoubtedly find yourself so strongly held in the novel’s thrall that you’ll inevitably miss your stop.
He was a man of black and white. And she was color. All the color he had.
The book’s biggest triumph, however, lies in the way Backman handles Ove’s story with a casual mix of tragedy and comedy, allowing his readers to experience vicarious joy even when they probe the darkness. This adds an unparalleled realness, a rawness to both Ove’s character and the story as a whole.
Though the story is narrated not by Ove but by a hovering third person, there’s clearly some deep sympathy here between the protagonist and the author. Ove is both someone you might know, and someone you might invent to tell a very specific story, and, it takes, I think, a rarer talent to treat this sort of character with not just respect, but with boundless empathy and infectious enthusiasm.
My heart floundered and scrambled for Ove. Ove is not a people person, and you’d have to uncoil his DNA to fix that. He has a forceful personality, and lives by the bullish assumption that any course of action he suggests would automatically be undertaken by those to whom he suggested it. And he is just as uncompromising, as unyielding in his integrity. “There’s a right way of doing things,” insists Ove, “and a wrong way.” But nothing in Ove’s life, it seemed, happened naturally—only as unavoidable blows, like those of a sledgehammer, and as memories of his past pile up like yarn under a wheel, as we witness how the capricious tides of misfortune, which pull people this way and that, take special notice of Ove—I felt a gloom so heavy that it was as if I carried a rock in my chest.
At the heart of the matter, after all, is grief, and Backman’s explorations of loss, what it means to be grieving and messily so, comes through with powerful clarity in A Man Called Ove. After his wife’s death, Ove is like a raw nerve and the world is always trying to touch him. Ove felt her absence within him like a hunger. She was always there, a shimmering apparition in the corner of their house (and the pages, too.) The years Ove had with her were the barometer against which the rest of his life was to be measured—and the rest of his life, hard as he tried, could not live up to that before. Love was a big, blue wave that lifted Ove up, carried him forth and, just when he believed it would last forever, disappeared from sight, like water at high noon.
We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.
But those are not the moments that will beat against the backs of my eyelids, in memory, but rather it’s his wife’s love for him, the steady and undemanding affection of it, the generous transformation of Ove’s neighbors into the most cherished of friends, the steadfast stream of kindness shining like a star at the core of the novel, and Ove himself, the most loveable, grumpiest comedian in the world.
A Man Called Ove will pull a smile from somewhere deep in its readers, crooked and loose and born of laughter, and a heartbreaking sob too, edged with mourning for someone who doesn’t exist but who will leave an indelible imprint nonetheless.