Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In turns blunt and brilliant, hilarious and heartbreaking, Anxious People is an absolute revelation. Having read A Man Called Ove a few years ago, I anticipated a similar sensibility for Fredrik Backman's Anxious People... and I was not disappointed. While covering very different ground than A Man Called Ove, Anxious People radiates with Backman's signature wry humor and piercing insight, introducing a diverse cast of complex characters thrust into an absurd scenario: a bank robbery gone awry. Over the course of the novel, these characters become (in the words of one protagonist) the "Worst. Hostages. Ever." Saying much more than that would ruin the many surprises that Backman has in store for his readers.
Imagine a Peter Sellers film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with a script by John Green, and you might have a slight glimpse of what's in store for you. That kind of combustible comedy (with cutting satire interwoven throughout) is exactly the kind of unpredictable narrative that Backman has crafted. Somehow, Anxious People manages to pack a potent punch while subverting expectations all along the way. The novel begins with a bank robbery, but the book twists and turns and contorts into a much broader rumination on life, love, loss, grieving, parenting, and mental health. As Backman proclaims to his readers, human beings are frequently best described as "idiots" - but those self-same "idiots" are often simply misguided, wounded creatures trying to navigate the complex waterways of life. It's no accident that the architectural structure of a bridge plays a pivotal role in several scenes: so much of Backman's story forces characters to bridge the gaping chasms that divide them. Along the way, readers also get to make their way across the tenuous, rickety platforms that connect characters - but Anxious People repeatedly reminds us that teetering on the ledge is never the solution to life's cruelties.
I don't want to spew out too much plot summary, however, because so much of this novel's genius relies upon subverting the expectations of readers and avoiding tried-and-true (albeit tedious and tired) tropes of storytelling. At one point, Backman makes an offhand reference to the definitive "twist-ending" film, The Sixth Sense... and then immediately pulls off a narrative trick worthy of M. Night Shyamalan himself. It's a clever and calculated move, an impressive flex of the muscles that will undoubtedly inspire many readers to thumb through previous chapters to search for breadcrumbs. Fortunately for them, there's a literary feast scattered throughout these pages.
It's rare that I give any novel a five-star rating (it's the elitist English teacher in me), but Anxious People absolutely deserves such potent praise. The flawless juxtaposition of silly and serious, heartfelt and humbling, makes Backman's novel a unique piece of literature. In the end, this life-affirming novel will make you laugh, cry, and experience every emotion in-between - sometimes, even, within the confines of a single page.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.