Book review: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

Depending on which side of the aging fence you stand, there is one of two axioms that will guide your approach to life.

The first, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” presupposes that you reach a certain point in life after which all new experiences and skills slide off you like existential teflon; the second by C. S. Lewis “You are never too old to set another goal, or to dream a new dream” invokes instead the idea that the boundaries for learning and growing are joyously inexhaustible.

Very early on in Fredrik Backman’s book Britt-Marie Was Here, it becomes patently obvious which camp the eponymous protagonist falls into, and it’s not the one where change and growth is accepted, welcomed and revered.

In fact, when the woman who first made her unyielding presence felt in Backman’s previous novel, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, first arrives in the decaying, blighted town of Borg, Sweden, she is wholly expecting everyone to bow to her accepted way of doing things.

With a confidence borne of years of acquiescence by everyone around her, fuelled by an indomitable will and uncrushable belief that the universe will always bend to her superior will, Britt-Marie takes up a temporary job at the recreation centre which doubles as an auto repair centre/pizzeria and grocery store – commerce is not exactly thriving in the road of which the best feature is the road going in and out – and expects, nay demands, that everyone will eat their dinner at 6pm, organise their cutlery draw in the right order and won’t drive at night.

She is almost immediately disappointed when people like Somebody who runs the polyglot recreation centre store, brother and sister Omar and Vega, part of the town’s obsessed football team, and Bank, her blind, irascible landlady, not only don’t bow to her superior knowledge and will but do their utmost to change the way she approaches life on just about every level.

Only Sven the local policeman, who takes an immediate shine to Britt-Marie, brittle and huffy-puffy though she may be, seems inclined to heed her advice, but no sooner has he gone along with her more inflexible pieces of advice, than he is side-swiped by another missive from Britt-Marie.

Not even her separation from her husband of decades, Kent, a man more obsessed with his career than her, cam dim her limpet-like hold on the right way to do things and even when events large and small, barely-worrying and traumatic come her way, she is, for the most part, a woman who shall not be moved.

 

(image courtesy Simon & Schuster)

 

Or so she thinks.

As Backman delightfully makes clear over the course of a novel when Britt-Marie goes from annoying to  brusquely amusing to vulnerably charming, Britt-Marie is being influenced more than she knows by the idiosyncratic, football-mad people of Borg, many of whom come to mean a great deal more to her than she had ever intended.

As we watch the slow, much-resisted flowering of Britt-Marie, and her grudging then enthusiastic acceptance of not her new station in life, but a new, damned uncomfortable life philosophy, we bear witness to what can happen when someone finally lets go of long-held assumptions and perceptions about life and  let’s the world do what it will.

It’s a big shift of course and Backman, despite the novel’s often playful, hilariously observant tone, never pretends otherwise, giving us a fairytale change of sorts but not one laden by cheesy road-to-Damascus (or is that Borg?) epiphanies, with one eye always on the fact that admitting you may not have lived life to the fullest is never easy.

“… Britt-Marie is already standing between the pistol barrel and the children. She stretches her arms out behind her to make sure she’s covering the girl and the boy with her body, but she doesn’t move an inch. She’s frozen to the spot, held in place by a whole lifetime of thwarted ambitions. ” (P. 200)

Rather, while Britt-Marie does mellow and yield, and begins to accept there may be a place in her life for a great many things that aren’t on her sacred lists – on which pencil only is acceptable; pen is far too permanent – she is does welcome her gradual transformation with open arms, fighting it all way until it becomes clear that there is no way back to the life she once led.

Even then, she remains rather dubious of the subtle shifts in attitude and feeling taking place, convinced that a woman her age can never change in any kind of meaningful way, a philosophy which also rules out Paris as a destination choice, despite the captivating hold it has on her.

Backman gives us a delightful, emotionally-affecting, oft-funny look at the reawakening that can happen when long-held idea on life are challenged, and challenged profoundly, and a choice has to be made about whether to accept them.

If you have ever felt that change was beyond you, that life has inflicted too much pain, and that you’ve made too many decisions, and that you are a captive of a lifetime spent being everyone but who you actually are, you’ll have much to like about Britt-Marie and her soul-changing journey in the nothing town of Borg, while you grow ever more appreciative of Backman’s unique gift for combining the quirky and the meaningful in a surprisingly moving way.

 

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