A Man Called Ove is the first novel by Swedish blogger and columnist, Fredrik Backman. At fifty-nine, Ove has definite ideas on how things should be done, on the best car to drive (obviously a Saab), and no patience for those who cannot follow the rules. The son of a hard-working, poor but principled man, Ove, too is hard-working and sticks rigidly to his principles. But now, six months since the death of his beloved wife, Sonja, he is “not dead, but not really living”, and he is no longer hard-working: he has been retrenched. His life without any purpose whatsoever, he matter-of-factly sets out to commit suicide.
His meticulous plans are derailed, time and again: inferior-quality rope; the Cat Annoyance; the Pregnant Foreign Woman who needs a ladder, a lift, a lesson; radiators that need to be properly bled; a bicycle that needs repair; a fainting Suit needing rescue from certain death; a gay man in need of accommodation. Time and again, he finds himself at Sonja’s grave, apologising once more for failing to join her as promised.
The narrative alternates between a three-week period in the present day, and Ove’s life from the age of seven, when his mother died. With his cranky main character, Backman gives the reader social commentary with plenty of chuckles, snickers and laugh-out-loud moments: “In the parking area, Ove sees that imbecile Anders reversing his Audi out of his garage. It has those new, wave-shaped headlights, Ove notes, presumably designed so that no one at night will be able to avoid the insight that here comes a car driven by an utter shit” and “’I almost smashed into that car!’ pants Parvaneh. Ove peers over the edge of the bonnet. And then, suddenly, a sort of calm comes over his face. He turns and nods at her, very matter-of-fact. ‘Doesn’t matter. It’s a Volvo’” exemplify his opinion about non-Saab vehicles. His insults are similarly hilarious: “You shouldn’t even be allowed to rewind a cassette”, he tells The Lanky One.
But Backman gives his characters plenty of words of wisdom too: “Men are what they are because of what they do. Not what they say” and “We can busy ourselves with living or with dying, Ove. We have to move on” are two examples. There is much humour in this novel, some of it quite black, but there are also moments that will produce a lump in the throat and even tears. Flawlessly translated from Swedish by Henning Koch, this “requested-by-readers” novel is a stunning debut: moving, uplifting and very funny.