Published by Atria Books
Publication date: June 5, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction
There’s a loser in every relationship. We may not like to admit it, but one of us always gets a little more, and one of us gives up a little more readily.
Given that I have very little interest in sports related fiction, it was no small feat on Fredrik Backman’s part that he made me care so much about hockey. But, in his novel, Beartown, I did. Mostly because it felt like it was about so much more than hockey—it addressed complicated life issues in a way that gave a voice to multiple viewpoints, even in disagreement. It’s why I was eager to read his sequel, Us Against You, which is about the year following the incident that caused a rupture in all that is Beartown. Once again, Backman immersed me in the bitterly cold environs of a small town in Sweden, but did he warm me the way he did in Beartown?
In keeping with the cold weather theme, Us Against You, felt like an old-fashioned, heavyweight wool sweater—scratchy and uncomfortable. Mentally and emotionally itchy because, from the beginning, the novel feels like a metaphor for American politics right now. And that’s not a happy dwelling place. Backman doesn’t try and hide the novel’s theme—it is about politics in Beartown. The hockey club has been decimated by the events of the previous season and now a politician, a disliked and unlikely savior, is willing to help Peter Andersson save the club and his job as its general manager. But this comes at a cost, a big cost. That this politician, Richard Theo, lies and is known for fomenting discord and divisiveness, only makes the parallels to the U.S. more unpleasantly obvious.
Some people are driven by ideals, but Richard Theo was driven by results…He seeks out simple scapegoats every time a crime in committed in the Hollow, so that he can call in the local paper for “more police” while simultaneously criticizing the establishment for “not sticking to the council budget.” He sits with environmentalists and promises to stop the hunting lobby’s influence on local politics, but when it suits his agenda he sits in other rooms and fans the hunters’ frustration with the wolf-huggers in the big cities and the gun-haters in government agencies.
It isn’t just that the two towns are set off against each other, which is expected, but even within Beartown people are forced to choose sides. And if that’s not enough, Backman lets the previous year’s events shred some of the town’s most enduring bonds, whether it’s marriages or lifelong friendships. There are few characters or relationships in the novel that bloom or even survive unscathed.
I could have withstood any one of these issues on its own, but combined they make Us Against You feel like the book of Job. There is sadness, discontent, deception, and pain on every page and it makes for depressing reading. It also makes the book’s ending feel completely incongruous.
Backman still writes so well that even when I don’t like what he’s writing about I appreciate how well he captures the infinite shades of human nature. He is a master of dry wit which, even though it is tempered by the novel’s darkness, does break through at times. Unlike Beartown, which felt like a novel of redemption and strength, Us Against You feels like a sad story of survival. This may be the best that can be hoped for, but I wanted so much more.