Meet Ove. A man with routines. A man with principles. A man who drives a Saab (and thinks that anyone who drives anything different must be something of a lunatic). A man for whom the term ‘grumpy’ is something of an understatement. A man who doesn’t like cats.
This is a wholesome, sardonic comedy, which follows Ove through his mundane, solitary, Saab-centred existence, as he sees it invaded by a set of characters who seem intent on disturbing him from his comfortable rut.
I’ve loved the two other Backman books I’ve read (Every Day the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and Anxious People), and in picking up A Man Called Ove I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is absolutely spot on, with a beautiful, character driven humour running throughout the story.
For full disclosure – I took some time to grow to like Ove. He is grumpy, and yes, while that is the point of his character, for me it took a little while for him to move towards ‘endearing grump’ and away from ‘annoying pedant’. The first scene, in which Ove tries to buy a computer (“”So this is one of those O-Pads, is it?”) is hilarious, but it initially more like something I would enjoy for a sketch, rather than a whole novel. His grumpiness sometimes seems a little wilful, his internal monologue a little sweary and even bordering on mean… and I spent quite a few chapters just hoping I would warm to him.
I did warm to him. I knew I was right to have trusted Backman, because by Chapter 7 my heart was blown half way across the kitchen. By that time, we have found out more about Ove’s past, and in particular the relationships that meant something to him, and that shaped him. We also begin to find out about his losses, and his sadnesses, and the very endearing innocence hiding behind the grump.
Backman draws Ove in such a fine and detailed way that I grew to like him despite his flaws. That’s not to say I stopped noticing the flaws, and some of them did continue to distinctly annoy me – particularly the internal monologue he uses towards his overweight neighbour, and what felt to me like unwitting rudeness (though not, thankfully, prejudice or unkindness) towards a young gay man of his acquaintance. But in the end, I felt I understood Ove, and the specificity and imperfections of his character make for a really engaging, funny and sad read.
In some ways I think this is the most complex of the Backmans I’ve read – something I did not actually expect. It certainly elicited a complex response in me, and I had to think very hard about how to pitch this review. But I would absolutely recommend this book.