Anxious People – Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith


Rating: 5 stars

Fredrik Backman has a way of handling the blackest of subjects with humour so that at times the reader finds herself laughing out loud and, very soon after, crying. As in all his books, he deliberately lays trails to mislead the reader, like breadcrumbs deliberately taking a person what appears to be the wrong way in a maze. So Chapter One opens:

A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single really bad idea.

Then Backman lays out the basic scenario: a 39-year-old would-be bank robber accidentally starts a hostage drama in a flat in their “not particularly large or noteworthy town”, but when the hostages are released and police storm the apartment they find it is empty.

No one knew where the bank robber had gone.

That’s really all you need to know at this point. Now the story can begin.

Having set all this out in some detail in Chapter One, Chapter Two is very brief and apparently completely unrelated. Intriguing, but unrelated. This is typical of Backman. The reader never knows for sure which breadcrumbs to follow and which to set aside for possible future consideration, just in case of having gone astray. Chapter Three takes us straight into a police interview with one of the eight released hostages, with an increasingly exasperated young policeman out of his depth in such an extraordinary situation. Over the course of the book he and his fellow policeman, who are father and son, and have to resort to Google in their attempts at hostage negotiation, try their absolute best to get to grips with dealing with the hostages and trying to piece together what has happened and where the hostage-taker could now be, which Backman has interspersed with a combination of background details about the two policemen and of the hostages, both in terms of their lives up to this point and of the events of this specific day.

The plot becomes ever more convoluted, in such a good way that I read through Anxious People at great speed, keenly trying to piece it all together and work out not only what had happened but why. It’s an entirely gripping read, never afraid to tackle the darkest subjects or to deal with difficult moral issues, while time and again making me laugh. The characters felt real, as are their efforts to deal with the everyday difficulties of being a decent person.

Backman is sly. Nothing in his books is as random nor as obvious as it appears. Although the focus here is on the current series of curious events in the apartment, the character-driven plot has numerous backstories that link a bridge, suicides, and a peculiar drawing of a frog, a monkey, and an elk. Then, just when it seems as though everything has been sorted out, the author turns everything topsy-turvy with a stunning revelation that would be a major spoiler to disclose and would ruin the fun of discovery. I loved it.

Reviewed by Daisy

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