Is my reading palette less refined for loving a bestselling book? Should I be embarrassed that I easily jump on book bandwagons with the rest of the world? Maybe some fellow book critics see it that way, but I certainly don’t. Good books sell well because they are good! I finished reading the super popular Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People about 15 minutes ago, and I’m so buzzed to talk about it I know I’ll hammer out this review nice and quick. I loved it. I’m going to recommend it to everyone I know, and I can’t wait to tell you why you should read it too.
Two police officers are investigating a hostage situation where all the captives were released safely, but the hostage-taker is nowhere to be found. These particular police officers are father and son. Meanwhile, the hostage-taker actually meant to rob a bank, but the bank they entered was a cashless bank, so realizing their mistake they ran into an apartment building across the street to hide. Unfortunately they dive into the wrong apartment, because this particular place is open for a real estate viewing. We get to know each one of these hostages, as well as the bank robber, as the novel continues over one day. Zara is a prickly wealthy woman who is suffering from a traumatic event that occurred over a decade ago, struggling to come to terms with her guilt and offending lots of other people along the way. Ro and Julie are pregnant with their first child, arguing more than ever and worried about whether or not they will be good parents. Estelle is an aging senior who simply wants to make people comfortable, while Roger and Anna-Lena renovate and flip apartments to distract themselves from the lingering problems within their marriage. There’s also a naked man dressed in a rabbit’s head, but that’s just one of the many surprising treats you have to look forward to in this wonderful mess of people and plot.
Don’t let the title of the book put you off, reading it will make you feel good. This book is about anxious people, but they are anxious for various reasons, and the problems they are facing have a surprisingly wide reach so I think most readers will be able to relate to one or more of the characters. An omniscient narrator frames this odd day for us readers, along the way making observations about the human condition in general: “You can always tell by the way people who love each other argue: the longer they’ve been together, the fewer words they need to start a fight” (p. 105). The references to parenthood are especially poignant: “Because that was a parent’s job: to provide shoulders. Shoulders for your children to sit on when they’re little so they can see the world, then stand on when they get older so they can reach the clouds, and sometimes lean against whenever they stumble and feel unsure” (p. 22). Sometimes these little emotional asides can be jarring in how accurate and simple they are, but there’s lots of humour to balance the emotion. The narrator also withholds certain information to comedic affect, for instance, allowing a character to drone on about how bank owners are greedy, then pausing long enough for the other character to inform everyone that they in fact own a bank. My favourite character Zara has a biting sense of humour that made me laugh out loud, mainly because she’s irritated by everyone else all the time which is reflected in her razor-sharp commentary.
Having a know-all narrator is what makes this book successful. Like an episode of Arrested Development, this voice that overlays everything else draws our attention back from whatever was distracting it in the first place. There are a lot of characters with a lot of backstories, and we jump back and forward through time so it can get a bit muddled in spots. But this all-knowing voice centers us, forcing us to pull back and look at the bigger picture. And like a great Seinfeld episode, the further in we get, the more connections we discover between characters and storylines, until the muddled bank robbery turned hostage situation reveals itself to be a meaningful act of fate. The new connections formed are heart-warming, logical, and not to much of a stretch to be completely eye-rolling. The pain that each character is working through has not disappeared, but it’s certainly lessened the further along we go.
This a book that makes even more sense during a pandemic; these ‘unprecedented’ times we are currently living in. Backman acknowledges the fact that everyone lives with pain, yet we find a way to keep moving through it, and if we haven’t found that healthy coping mechanism, it’s out there, somewhere. This act of searching for answers, for relief really, is what makes us human, and being able to laugh about the absurdity of it all is the best part.