The Miracle Of Kindness:
After the international success of A Man Called Ove, Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s books have followed the template of telling deeply moving stories with kindness at their core. In his stories, unhappy people find joy, lonely people find a purpose and the wicked move towards redemption. Backman’s style is deceptively simple, his plots are set amidst the mundane everydayness of life, yet, at the end emotional tectonic plates are shifted.
His latest, Anxious People, is set in a small Swedish town, a day before New Year’s eve, when a desperate bank robber fails to get the small amount of money needed to pay the rent and hold on to the kids the other parent is trying to snatch away in a nasty custody battle. What kind of inept robber would, as the sneering teller oddly called London wonders, try to rob a cashless bank, and ask for six and a half thousand instead of millions?
In a panic the robber runs up the building across the street and into the first open apartment, where a bunch of potential buyers have gathered for a viewing. On seeing a robber in a ski mask, waving a pistol (that may or not be real) the people jump to the conclusion that they are being held hostage.
The small town has never had a hostage situation before, and the two cops, Jim and his son Jack (who have communication issues of their own), try to Google what to do while waiting for the expert hostage negotiator to arrive from Stockholm; the Swedish capital comes in for some good-humored drubbing, but Backman also lets it casually slip that there’s a Syndrome named after the city.
Scrutinizing the apartment are an elderly couple whose marriage is going through a strain, a young pregnant woman with her gay partner, a wealthy woman, whose presence there is baffling and a sweet old lady, along with the ditzy estate agent, and a “disruptor” (this has to be read to be believed) dressed in underpants and a rabbit head.
As the two cops try to cope with the extraordinary event, Backman slips in the back stories of the people trapped in the flat—including the distraught robber— which are poignant as well as whimsical. The police interviews with the hostages are downright hilarious!
When the reader comes to chapter 47, there is a big twist and the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. Every scene and sentence has a reason and every character connects in unexpected ways.
Backman writes about the anxieties of contemporary life with insight, and about the flawed characters with such affection that even the seemingly mean banker turns out to be sympathetic. The story about a town, a bridge, families, love, memories and “idiots” is so heartwarming, you will be smiling days later if a line or episode pops into the head. It is to Backman’s credit that the slightly twee goings on never grate and the reader is not bludgeoned with the message of compassion. In short, it is utterly delightful.
By Fredrik Backman
Translated by Neil Smith