Our Daily Concerns
Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s literary career has certainly taken an upward trajectory. The phenomenal and critical success of A Man Called Ove (2013, originally published in Swedish as En man som heter Ove) has made him a household name, not just in his native Sweden but all over the world. His study of human experience through the usually stoic but eccentric Ove was vivid and relatable. There was no longer back from that point on as he established himself as a rising star in the world of literature.
Backman made a literary comeback in 2019, with the publication of Folk med ångest in his home country. A year later, it was translated and published in English as Anxious People. The novel relates the events of one fateful December 29 in a small Swedish town. An amateur bank robber, pushed to the brink of homelessness, decided to pull off a bank robbery. The robber, encountering an apathetic bank teller soon discovered that the banking system is no longer the same as they were years before. With no recourse in sight and the police on their way, the robber fled the scene.
The anonymous bank robber entered a random apartment which was, at that moment, holding an apartment viewing. The bank robber turned hostage taker, holding hostage a diverse group of people – an old woman looking for an apartment for her daughter, a pregnant lesbian couple looking for an apartment, a bank executive who considers apartment viewing a hobby, and a retired couple who makes apartment renovation their business venture. It was a diverse group, with each never having an inkling that they would find themselves mixed in such circumstances.
“The truth of course is that if people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they wouldn’t spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who’s having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves. Anyone can nurture a myth about their life if they have enough manure, so if the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, that’s probably because it’s full of shit.”~ Fredrik Backman, Anxious People
What these individuals didn’t realize is that the events of the day will alter their lives forever in ways they didn’t expect to. Following the initial pandemonium, everyone started settling in. As the story progressed, and as each character mingled with their fellow hostages, revelations after revelations start to surface. What commenced as an unusual and eccentric sequence of events began to evolve into a human interest story, a feast of shared human experience.
The title itself, Anxious People, was a hint as to the concern that Backman tried to grapple with in his latest work. As the unusual mix of hostages gets to know each other, they found themselves opening doors to their lives to virtual strangers, something that they wouldn’t usually do. Each has his or her own concern. Each has his or her own personal issue he or she wants to be resolved. More importantly, each has his or her own secret he or she is hiding behind a veneer. Each character is a reflection of us, of the people we meet along the way.
As the story progresses, the readers get to learn about them and connect with them. The novel grappled with the various pressures we face on a daily basis – the pressure of social media, the pressure to excel in our chosen field, the pressure to be a better parent, and the pressure we create for ourselves. Above all these pressures is the pressure to maintain a happy disposition in a world that is wrapped up in violence, sadness, grief, and sorrow.
It is these pressures we face on a daily basis that turn us into anxious people. Even before the pandemic started, many of us is already grappling with anxiety, yet we constantly deny it for fear of reprisal. As one philosopher has said, we fear the things we don’t understand. Backman, in his innovative way, found a way to underscore this subject. Backman wove is a necessary tale that reflects both the physical and psychological landscape of our time. He did so whilst remaining loyal to his primary literary device – humor.
“They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.”~ Fredrik Backman, Anxious People
Beyond the humor, for the situation itself is humorous, Backman subtly underscored other facets of mental health – the search for peace of mind, depression, and even suicide. There are so many things happening around us that the challenge is not to survive but to stay sane. Above all, without being preachy, Backman reminded his readers, and humanity in general, to be kind. After all, we have no iota about what the person we met on the street is going through. It cannot be denied that, despite the advances in our time, mental health remains shrouded in stigma. Literature, however, is keeping up, constantly evolving to help beat this stigma.
Backman, albeit the prevailing humor, was never subtle about his conviction apropos mental health and the current condition of humanity. Our lives intersect, whether we acknowledge it or not, and the best thing is to move forward with kindness. “We’re looking for something to cling on to, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We’re doing all we can to teach our children how to swim. We all have this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.”
Anxious People is a character-centric story, relying more on the set of characters rather than on the plot. The plot is simple but the premise is interesting, the characters even more so. Backman has a canny insight as to what makes people or a group of people tick. He effectively married his keen insights into human nature with humor: This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be reasonably good human being for.”
Yes, the subjects the novel dealt with were heavy but Backman’s execution and delivery were on point. It did, however, take some time before the story flourished. The first half dragged and Backman kept on repeating a mantra – that we are “idiots”. Our idiosyncrasies are undeniable but constantly underlining them undermined the story to some point. When the story flourished, all the lamentations were forgotten for what prevailed was a heartwarming narrative about the pains of shared experiences, one thing that we can all relate to.
“We can’t change the world, and a lot of time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance, sweetheart. We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to find a way to convince ourselves that that will just have to… be enough. So wen can live with our failures without drowning.”~ Fredrik Backman, Anxious People
Doused in humor prevalent in Backman’s works, Anxious People, however, was more than just a novelty act. In his latest work, the Swedish writer has again demonstrated why he is a writer to look forward to. His lenses magnify our human tendencies. He vividly captures who we are and what we are. The humor belies his deep insights but both elements shine through. His insights make the reader reflect on himself or herself, without being preachy or pushy. Backman plays to his strongest card, and that is the keen understanding of what it is to be a human being. In Anxious People, Backman has crafted a timely, relevant, and rewarding read that mirrors the concerns of our time.
Characters (30%) – 30%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I wasn’t originally planning on buying and reading Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People even though I loved A Man Called Ove. To be honest, I was reluctant about A Man Called Ove at first as well. But I am thankful I overcame these apprehensions because I ended loving both books. What prevails again in Anxious People is not the Swedish brand of humor (although it certainly was impressionable), rather, it was Backman’s keen insight into the human soul and the shared human experience. He knows how to connect with his readers. It took time for the narrative to flourish but when it did, it was a literary feast, a firework of emotions.
Now, I have learned my lesson, Backman is a literary tour-de-force and there is no reason for me to be reluctant in reading Backman’s works. I have one more of his works. Who knows, I might end up reading my third Backman this year.
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator: Neil Smith (from Swedish)
Publisher: Atria International
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 336
Genre: Humorous Fiction
Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers but can’t up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone. Add to the mix a young couple about to have their first child; an elderly woman who is not afraid of someone waving a gun in her face; a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent; and a mystery man who has locked himself in the only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst hostages in the world.
Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions ready to boil over. None of them is entirely what they appear. And all of them – the bank robber included – desperately crave some sort of rescue.
About the Author
To learn more about Fredrik Backman, click here.