The purpose of fiction is to teach us empathy—teaching not as passing on an abstract idea like algebra or the representation of topography by the drawing of maps but teaching as drawing out something already inside us that regularly draws back like a frightened animal. If you read a novel and have no empathy for any of the characters—likeable or not, for people are not always likeable—then the unwritten contract between the author and you, the reader, to embolden empathy has broken down. This happens, for all manner of reasons; and is not in itself reason not to try again, with another author, another reader.
The first novel by Fredrik Backman that I read was Beartown. It is, I think, the most achingly beautiful story I have ever read. The story is a painful one: of a schoolgirl who is raped by a boy, and the community who rallies around him and turns against her family, because in Sweden—as in my own country—the life and future of a boy is worth far more than that of girls. Because this story is so regular an occurrence, there will be many people for whom Beartown is too painful to read, but I wish that as many as can, would. It might not stop boys from raping girls, but I do believe (I recognise perhaps naïvely) that it might change society, the gross injustice of those whose responsibility it is to uphold justice—not only the police and legal system, but, to an extent, every citizen—compounding injustice upon injustice.
Anyway, Beartown is another story from the one I am trying to tell, and a beautifully told one. So perfect that I was hesitant to read another book by the same author, lest I be disappointed. I was so invested in the characters, in rooting for them, that I did risk the sequel, Us Against You, and it is also a fine story, though not as perfect. But I have never risked Backman’s earliest novel, A Man Called Ove, despite many endorsements, nor anything written before Beartown.
But the other day, when, on holiday, I was failing to find a book to read, and having walked into a bookshop for the third time searching, my wife pointed to a book on a table just inside the entrance and said, ‘What about this one? You like this author.’ And that was that.
Anxious People has been a delight. In part because it is so different in style from Backman’s other storytelling (including, I'm told, ones I have not read), thus avoiding the trap of disappointment. It is a charming story, a comedy of errors and a whodunnit and a love story, of the author’s love for his fellow human beings in spite and because of their short-comings. It is a story that falls over itself to tell itself, returning to a new starting-point again and again; and one so well written as to catch you out again and again, lovingly bringing you face to face with your own limits, the limits that make you as flawed and loveable as the characters.
Anxious People is a story about the ways in which our lives affect one another, without our even being aware. Of how the lives of at first glance strangers are intertwined. It touches, gently but deeply, on a suicide, and the lifelong impact of that action on several lives, and for that reason some might need to choose whether they want to read it or not.
Fredrik Backman is a writer who can help us navigate the painful and the frighteningly wonderful vulnerabilities of the human condition, working with us to embolden empathy. To take a risk on our neighbours, on who they could become, given the chance, given acceptance of where they (and we) are, and forgiveness of what brought them (us) to that place where necessary, and support to get where they (we) need to be in the next chapter—however short or long, but no more than that—of our story. All accomplished, as only fiction can, by catching us up in a truthful deceit.