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The Winners

Review

The Winners

The first thing you notice about THE WINNERS, the conclusion to Fredrik Backman's Beartown trilogy, is that it's huge --- over 650 pages. But that's because Backman has a lot to tell us. We are immediately immersed in Beartown and its neighboring town, Hed, watching as hockey brings the townspeople together and almost destroys them. Backman excels at displaying the extremes of human emotions through his at-times visceral novel.

Backman's writing is lyrical as we hear the narrative through a plural entity that is like a voice for the town. And he doesn't pull any punches. This is not a story with twists and turns; he flat out tells us what the future will bring. The first sentence reads, "Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending." So there you have it; you've been warned. And if that wasn't enough, the last sentence of that half-page first chapter reveals, "Boys like Benji die young. They die violently."

"THE WINNERS is a complicated conclusion to this trilogy, filled with enough action for three books, but it all works together effectively and movingly. You will feel better for having read it and for having contemplated and been inspired by the messages that Backman offers in these many pages."

We adore Benji, so from the very first page our hearts are broken. Backman writes frankly about Benji, his hopes and dreams, and makes us fall completely in love with him before he meets his tragic, heroic end. There are plenty of admirable characters here. We know most of them from BEARTOWN and US AGAINST THEM, but even if you haven't read these previous installments of the series, Backman explains enough that this book could be read as a stand-alone.

As usual, Backman has much to tell us about life and love and hate. There's a lot of hatred in Beartown and Hed, where the hockey rivalry is intense, cruel and at times violent. We meet Johnny and Hannah from Hed, and we get to know lawyer Kira and her husband Peter, the former general manager of the Beartown hockey club, along with their children. Maya, their oldest, is especially important; in the first book, she's raped by the star hockey player from Beartown. No one wants to believe her because in Beartown, hockey is everything. We read about a similar event that happens to another teenager and the devastating effect it has on her younger brother and, eventually, the town.

None of us is perfect even when we try to be. So here we see bad guys with tender spots and good guys who let bad things happen. While many of the characters grow up with parents who are fairly negligent and sometimes abusive, we clearly see that even the best of parents make mistakes, falter at times, and say or do the wrong thing. For this latter group, the love for their children shine through in spite of any missteps or mistakes.

Backman manages to tell us what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future in a seemingly effortless manner. We don’t have to wonder if Maya will make it as a singer; he tells us she will. So there aren't many surprises --- just a lot of reflection about the nature of men and women, and how easily our emotions can be stoked to hate "the others." In Beartown, they hate those from Hed, even though they are pretty much the same. They are all Swedish and from tiny rural towns only a few miles apart. There is also typical small-town bigotry towards people from other countries and those who aren't heterosexual.

Much of what people become depends on where and to whom they are born, which is true even in this small town. Those from the Hollows have fewer opportunities than those who are born in the Heights. Family is important to Backman. He writes, "Everyone I know with any sense has two families, the one they were given and the one they chose. You can't do anything about the first, but you can damn well take responsibility for the second." These words are spoken by Ramona, the owner of the bar, who exhorts her friend, Teemu, to behave well and make his followers do the same. There are two thugs in the book who don't have hearts of gold, but rather small pieces of goodness, and respected politicians who appear benevolent but are more ruthless than any thug.

THE WINNERS illustrates what women have been saying about rape and society and why so many men feel invincible. Backman points out that in elementary school, where boys tease girls and pull their hair, adults laugh and say that it just means the boy likes the girl. Ruth, a young rape victim, writes in her diary, "That's how you teach boys that they have rights over us. Then we get bigger and then they rape us..." She continues, "Parents always think they have to talk to their daughters about guys. But you don't have to talk to us about guys because we already know all that, for f---'s sake, because we're the ones they rape!! Talk to your damn sons instead!!! Teach them to talk to each other and teach them to stop each other. Raise just one f---ing boy somewhere who can become a head teacher who understands that when boys pull girls by the hair, it's the f---ing boys there's something wrong with."

Backman understands that our children are the hope for the future. No matter what happens, life goes on, but he is sure to let us know that one child in Beartown will grow up to be a shining light for others. While we may lose those we love dearly, we also can be inspired by that loss to be better people and work for a more promising tomorrow. THE WINNERS is a complicated conclusion to this trilogy, filled with enough action for three books, but it all works together effectively and movingly. You will feel better for having read it and for having contemplated and been inspired by the messages that Backman offers in these many pages.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on September 28, 2022

The Winners
by Fredrik Backman

  • Publication Date: September 27, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982112794
  • ISBN-13: 9781982112790