Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkos*****

barracudaDanny Kelly is a swimming prodigy, and he is elevated beyond his humble working class origins by a sports scholarship. When he is in the water, he can fly. The water parts for him. His coach believes, and he himself is certain, that he is the strongest, fastest, best swimmer in Australia and perhaps the world. No one can beat him. His teammates nickname him “Barracuda”.

My thanks go to edelweiss books and above the treeline for the free peek.

The “golden boys” from the privileged classes live in the dormitory and come from all over the nation. The tuition renders it an exclusive place, one where the very wealthy can send their silver-spoon-fed young men without worry that they will consort with the wrong friends or marry below their station. Danny is twice-over alienated, because not only does he go home to his own little two-parent, two-wage-earner bungalow while his classmates head to the dorms, but he is gay. When some of his friends pair off into heterosexual couples, he keeps his own sexuality close to his vest. After all, he isn’t primarily gay; he is primarily a swimmer. He is stronger, faster, and better.

Early in the story the narrative breaks from present to past to in between, and so we know that right now he is an adult who works with brain-damaged adults. Between his youthful dream of an Olympic gold medal—at least one—and the present, he has been sent to prison for nearly killing a man. We are fed the pieces in small servings, and because we bond so immediately with the protagonist, it is agonizing as we slowly fill in the missing puzzle parts. What happened? What in the world happened?

It’s really dark out there. In fact, the cowardly reader in me was ready to jump ship and abandon the novel, given that it was so early in the story and yet things had already gone so wrong, but I couldn’t look away. This was up there with The Thornbirds for me. I can’t believe this book hasn’t been heaped with awards. My only possible explanation is that it is too edgy for the wider world; if so, it’s a shame. Tsiolkos deserves renown for what he has achieved here.

Another reviewer has noted the prolific use of the c*** word, one I could cheerfully see lost to the English language forever and always. The general use of profanity is consistent with the book’s harshness and although it makes it a more painful read, the discomfort we feel is part of the author’s design, and appropriate. Nevertheless, I wish he had chosen just about any word other than that one. Even with it, though, Barracuda is a strong, strong novel.

Dan’s journey is a rough one. In prison and out, words fail him, and he is constantly misunderstood. He lives for routine and is happy with menial labor after prison, but the entire family’s hopes and dreams have been fastened to him for so long that they can’t drop their high expectations. He finds himself avoiding his family because the weight of his failure and what it has done to the family who sacrificed for him is unbearable. He is still so angry, and there are important aspects of his life he has to resolve before it can be different. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, because you have to read this book.

Danny’s family is so complex and so well-developed that I felt as if they were right here in the room with me. Of particular significance is the relationship that unfolds between himself and his cousin Dennis. The dignity of the story as it approaches its climax is breathtaking. Don’t assume anything here. There is no book like this one, at least not that I have found or heard of, and I have had my ear to the ground.

My one criticism is that the last chapter is superfluous. The story is over at the end of the second-to-last chapter, and that is where it should have stopped.
When all is said and done, we learn by following Dan Kelly’s life that there is more than one kind of victory, and there is more than one way to become a hero. Barracuda is a stellar novel by a talented writer; I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work. As for you, do yourself a favor and get this book.