Wow. Just, wow.
Oh boy, was I afraid to begin this one! I began my Backman journey with his most curmudgeon-y character, Ove, and fell completely in love with him. I admit, some of that was because I saw my husband in Ove and am lovingly aware that I am to my husband what Sonja was to Ove – “his colour, all the colour he had”. I then read Beartown which, while completely different in every way but one (character nuance), also blew me away. I then found Britt-Marie to be frustratingly endearing. What a high bar Backman had set for himself!
After nearly two weeks of intermittent insomnia, I began Us Against You around 1 am this Saturday morning. The beginning is powerful. We are reminded of Kevin raping Maya in the previous book, and see the fallout of that rape for Kevin’s mother who, understandably, is struggling with the weight of Kevin’s actions. As a parent, she spent her son’s entire life hoping to protect from harm, her worst nightmare was of their child experiencing any sort of victimization or brutality. Like most, the last thing she would ever have imagined would be her child turning out to be the proverbial Bogeyman. What an unthinkable thing!
At about only 5% into the novel, Backman already skillfully highlights the issues of rape culture, toxic masculinity, the politics of power, and corruption and collusion. He also very clearly demonstrates the inevitable fallout when a community, however big or small, succumbs to small-mindedness – a simple lie is always easier to believe and support than a complicated truth. This latter concept is particularly relevant and important in today’s political atmosphere, where pre-WWII-style nationalist, fascist, and racist propaganda scarily prevail. Backman uses major global concerns and reproduces them on a smaller, easy-to-understand scale, simplifying difficult concepts and educating without condescension.
As a woman, the issue of rape culture is present in my daily life. Women are told and “educated” on how not to get raped, and are always expected to bear at least some brunt of the blame if and when they are. Men are very rarely (if ever) taught how not to rape. Backman not only understands that this is a very problematic, he also understands the very real and subtle ramifications of the language we use to talk about it. She was raped instead of he raped her. “She” is simultaneously made both passive and blame-worthy while his very presence – to say nothing of his behaviour – is very nearly made invisible. The nuance is subtle and very easily brushed aside by those whose lives are not negatively impacted by this small difference. But words matter. Words have power. How we talk about things is how we perceive them, even if we don’t realize it (and this has been demonstrated ad nauseam by studies in both psychology and linguistics), and Backman demonstrates a highly sophisticated understanding of all of this without shoving it down anyone’s throat. He allows the reader to come to this realization, too, but does it in such a way that the realization is inevitable. How wonderful!
Peter Andersson, Maya’s ex-NHL-player father, is defined by his professional and sportive accomplishments. Kira Andersson is, like most women, defined by her status as “wife of”, instead of by her own impressive list of accomplishments. Women are frequently defined by passivity and passive traits: their relationships to power (the wife of, the daughter of, the mother of, and so forth), their appearance, their family life, the way they dress… Men are defined by their activity: the work they do, their accomplishments, the things they say. Their daughter, Maya, has been defined by others by what has been done to her, and their son, Leo, has been living in the shadow of their family’s hurts, and shattered dreams and expectations. Benji is a scared boy with a heart as wide as the ocean. Vidar was born into less than ideal circumstances, grows to be a product of his environment but sacrifices everything for love. All of our characters are deeply flawed. None are “good” or “bad” (except for Richard Theo, but despite being a major force, he doesn’t actually matter). All are nuanced, like real people.
I am a hard, difficult-to-please critic and frequently find many of The Greats to be highly overrated. That being said, I sincerely hope that Backman is remembered as one of The Greats, because he is most definitely not overrated. I am in awe of his writing genius. While A Man Called Ove will always have a special place in my heart, Us Against You is truly Backman’s Magnum Opus.
This story is so on-point for the times in which we live. This book is heartbreaking and heart-rending and gut-wrenching, simultaneously. As the book progresses, the reader must mourn and lament the worst of humanity. But for sticking with it, the reward is great, as the reader will also bear witness to its best – love, community, respect, and redemption.
I received a free digital copy of this novel from NetGalley, but loved it enough that I bought myself a hard copy for my Backman Collection.