Review Anxious People by Fredrik Bakman

Fredrik Backman is a Swedish contemporary writer. His novels are acknowledged as “the odysseys of ordinary men and women” that include exceptionally moving tales of everyday courage. He made his debut with A Man Called Ove in 2012 which stayed on the bestseller list for 42 weeks. His books have been translated into 46 languages and sold more than 12 million copies.

Below is the recording of the event for those who have missed the same.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Presented by: Friyana Munshi

Review by: Sheena Shahani

Frederick Backman’s 2019 novel Anxious People has gained currency lately – largely owing to a new six-episode Swedish adaptation now streaming on Netflix. Anxious People – the book – was The Pune Book Club’s January 9 selection for discussion. Several attendees who had not read the book cut corners and watched the show in time. However, this review will confine itself to the novel.

The presenter, Friyana Munshi, a Pune MA Lit student, and an aspiring writer, put both professorial and authorial elements in her story-telling of Anxious People, taking it apart and putting it together, thus making it a treat for the eyes and ears.

At the outset she enjoined: “I would ask all of you to think of a memory, any deep-rooted memory of a situation where you have felt so anxious, where you have felt that your back was to the wall, and that there was no way out and all you were getting was crazy ideas. Only a miracle could save you. This book is a story of that sort. The miracle is the people themselves.”

And with this opening, she dived straight into the author’s background, the plot summary and the characters of Anxious People.

Plot summary

The achronological story opens on the day before new year’s eve. There has been a failed bank robbery in a small town. The bank robber, brandishing a gun, who is not really a robber, but driven by desperation,  goes into a bank to extort a small amount of money, only to learn that it is a cashless bank. The robber then flees into a nearby building block, gatecrashes into an apartment showing that is underway, and takes the people there hostage. The building is soon surrounded by town police, with reinforcements being called in from the capital Stockholm. After an ‘ordeal’  that lasts several hours, in which we come to know the back stories of everyone present, the hostages are released and the bank robber escapes, aided and abetted by the hostages.  

Characters/Identities/Slow reveals/Surprises

This is a narrative where first impressions have to be quickly thrown out, as things are never what they seem. The characters are slowly named in an interesting progression. It’s almost like they were a cut blurry and cartoon-like at first but then steadily come into focus. For the first dozen chapters, the author refers to his characters as the bank robber, the realtor, the man on the bridge, the younger police officer, the older police officer, etc, that is until chapter 13 when suddenly he populates the human landscape with names such as Jim and Jack, a police partnership duo working at the same cop station, same department and often stepping on each other’s toes. The two are of course the officers on site.

We then get to know some of the characters’ names – Julia and Ro (a same-sex couple); Anna-Lena and Roger (husband/wife), Nadia, a psychiatrist (who is not at the apartment viewing), Zara, a senior bank manager, Estelle, the apartment owner, and Lennart, an actor. Friyana emphasisesd that all the characters were very humanly portrayed, with their flaws and foibles. Almost everyone in the apartment and the two police officers have had their lives criss-crossed and their paths inter-connected at some point or the other.

There are surprises at every turn: Jim and Jack also happen to be father and son. They keep talking about Jim’s wife (Jack’s mother) who we later realise is dead. The bank robber, it is revealed at about 70 per cent of the narrative, is not a ‘he’ but a ‘she’, making us wonder how biased we were in thinking it was a ‘he’, as all the characters kept referring to the bank robber as a man. Why can’t a bank robber be a female?

One of the lead characters, links and symbols throughout the novel is The Bridge, both physically and metaphorically. The commandeered apartment has a breathtaking view of this bridge – which in the past has been a springboard for suicides. The Bridge seems to be connected, in one way or another, with almost all the characters in the past or the present.  After the hostage-taking incident, many gaps in communication and understanding are ‘bridged’ among the characters.

Parenthood and relationships

Jim is scared of his son going into a building which may have a bomb, and he is always worried about his drug addict daughter, a basket case.

Julia is pregnant – and she and her wife Ro are looking for a home to welcome their child. Initially, Anna-Lena seems to be under the shadow of Roger. Then we come to know that Roger volunteered to become a househusband and the stay-at-home parent, while Anna-Lena furthered her career and became very successful. Zara has no intention of buying an apartment – she comes to view every apartment that overlooks the bridge – the bridge has a hold over her as we get to know. Lennart is an acquaintance of Anna-Lena. He is by profession an actor, but at the moment acting jobs are scarce so he works part-time as a saboteur at apartment viewings. He scares would-be buyers away and that helps Anna-Lena and Roger to drive down the asking price. While Lennart is introduced as a Bottom-like character of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he later shows himself as insightful and astute.

It would be a very challenging task to tackle so many themes and pack it into 350 pages, but Backman does a good job, Friyana said, of addressing multiple issues such as relationships, parenting, crime, morality, big city versus small town complex, the Stockholm syndrome, mental health, immigrants, addiction, religion and social media. The result is a heartwarming and humorous story, packed with symbols and aphorisms (https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/67840009-folk-med-ngest?page=2).

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