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  • Ninay Desai

A Man called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A copy of Fredrik Backman's A Man called Ove lies face down on grass. Photo by Ninay Desai.

The words taciturn and grumpy seem almost pleasant when compared to Ove – the protagonist of this novel. He is the sort of person who seems older than his 59 years owing to his rigidity regarding fairly pointless rules and a blanket animosity toward the rest of the planet. He decides to end his life because he no longer sees any purpose in living on. Ove has a plan and the tools to achieve it. That’s when a serendipitous interruption caused by a couple moving into the neighbourhood ruins his design. And for the next few days, his meticulous plans to join his wife in death are stymied by some or the other interference. The common elements in all these incidents are his grouchiness combined with an inability to walk away from people he can help. Of course, he doesn’t cooperate graciously but he does lend a hand anyway.

A Man called Ove is a book more about peeling away the layers of its protagonist rather than just the events that take place at this stage in his life. Through flashbacks, Backman takes the reader through Ove’s life to show us not only what he is but also why. That’s when we begin to understand his pride in being self-sufficient, his devotion to rules and regulations, his loyalty and his dislike of new-fangled ideas and wastefulness. One of the recurring themes is building and fixing things – something of a male preserve in the book. It also fits in with Ove’s idea of masculinity – reserved, dedicated, utilitarian and reliable. The new neighbour also known as the Lanky One, the overweight young man next door, Jimmy and the BMW-driving neighbour, Anders act as foils to Ove. And yet, by the end of the story, both Ove and the reader realise that they too have some useful skills and more importantly, their hearts at the right place.

Looking beyond the exterior of a person into their core – seeing their heartaches, weaknesses, fears, secret desires and hopes is another vital theme of the novel. To be truly seen is the gift that Ove’s late wife, Sonja bestowed on him. She’s described as “all the colours” in contrast to his black and white and yet she sees in him, what we as readers also see by the end of the book – a generosity of spirit and a goodness that is rare in this day and age.

One of my peeves with this book is its somewhat implausible plot points especially when it comes to neighbours who barge in at all times of day. I’m not sure that’s believable given the curmudgeon Ove is. The other aspect that felt overdone were the similes. I understand that similes and metaphors can make things, especially intangible concepts such as expressions and feelings, easier to imagine and therefore relatable. They’re also fun to read especially when they are as fresh and inventive as Fredrik Backman’s comparisons. However, if a reader were to take a sip of water every time the author uses a simile, I guarantee they would be well-hydrated in a couple of chapters. That, I believe, is an excessive use of the literary tool.

Nonetheless, A Man called Ove is a heart-warming book that reaffirms an inescapable truth of the human condition that there are few things more life-affirming and essential than the belief that one is loved and needed. Everything else is negotiable.

Note: The Tom Hanks starrer A Man called Otto that dropped on Netflix recently is an adaptation of this novel.

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