‘A pleasant but predictable read’ – A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch)

amcoA Man Called Ove is about a man called Ove who tries to kill himself, but fails, then tries to kill himself again, fails, tries again, fails again, tries, fails, tries…you get the picture. Most attempts are foiled by his new neighbours: ‘a short, black-haired and obviously foreign woman’, whom Ove calls the Pregnant One, and her husband, the Lanky One. ‘Ove feels an instinctive scepticism towards all people taller than one eighty-five; the blood can’t quite make it all the way up to the brain’.

Ove spends a lot of his time shouting at them or grouching in general. He’s reluctant to take the Lanky One to the hospital when he falls off a ladder, for example, (a ladder he’d borrowed from Ove), and when he eventually gets to the hospital and is left alone with the couple’s two young children, Ove punches the hospital clown.

Ove has problems with most of his neighbours as none of them seem to follow the rules as strictly as Ove would like them to. They leave bicycles outside the bicycle shed, they drive where they’re not supposed to drive, and the cat pisses where it’s not supposed to piss. Ove is quick to let every one of his neighbours know that he is not happy with their transgressions, even the cat. Especially the cat, in fact.

In short, Ove is a grumpy old man. A thoroughly unpleasant character. But the author knows this, and he gives us some backstory. We learn of the difficulties Ove had in his life (many of which could’ve been avoided if he hadn’t been so stubborn). We see him as hard working and honest to a fault. A Saab driver who doesn’t trust anyone who drives any other kind of car, not even a Volvo and especially not a BWM, an Audi or a Japanese car (like the Lanky One and the Pregnant One).

In these flashbacks, we get the details of how Ove met the love of his life, Sonja, a woman that he saw as too good for him, but he eventually managed to marry her. They lived together for many years, and she was pleasant to the neighbours and knew most of them well. When she dies, Ove he feels he cannot go on without her, and that’s why he’s trying to kill himself. Backman gives us all these details in such a way that we cannot help but feel sympathy for Ove, regardless of how grumpy he is.

Ove isn’t such a bad man. He even tries to be considerate in suicide. He lays plastic sheets so the floor won’t get scuffed when estate agents inevitably barge their way past the ambulance men as they remove his corpse. And he leaves the front door unlocked so they don’t have to break it down. Each failed attempt brings him a little closer to the Pregnant and Lanky Ones and their sweet family. Will he see that there is some good left in the world after all, or will he finally succeed in killing himself first? You can probably guess the answer already.

This is all told with the gentlest of humour, which translates well from the original Swedish. The novel – already a million-seller – was first published in English in 2014, and this paperback version is likely to sell well too.

Any Cop?: A Man Called Ove has been hailed for attracting readers who don’t normally bother with books, which is always a good thing. For those who more regularly pick up a book, however, Ove is likely to be a pleasant but predictable read.

Jim Dempsey


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