One of the craft lessons meted out to writers is that we ought to make a tonal promise at the beginning of the book and uphold that pledge until the end.
In other words, if we begin a story on a hilarious note, we are taught to maintain that humour until the last page because that is what we've promised the reader at the beginning – a fun read.
If this is a rule of some sort, then Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (and translated from Swedish by Neil Smith) is an absolute exception to the rule. It begins on a very poignant note, which is what drew me to it in the first place, but as it progressed, there were unexpected bursts of hilarity, the kind that made me laugh out loud, the kind that made the poignant moments even more so and the fun moments even more so.
Looking at real estate isn't usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage.
This is how the blurb of the book begins. As we read through, we learn more about the people who are being held captive and the robber who is holding them all hostage.
Backman takes us on a wonderful journey of what it means to be utterly human with all our foibles and mistakes and how, even in the direst of circumstances, our stories have the ability to move or even save each other as we bumble through life.
I was constantly torn between wanting to re-read entire chapters, simply to relish the ingenious descriptions, the authentic portrayal of emotions, and the often hilarious dialogues, and wanting to turn the page faster so that I could find out who the bank robber was and how exactly the robber evaded capture.
It is a comedy as much as it is a drama. It is a mystery as much as it is a meditation on what it means to be a human adult, going through the motions of employment, marriage and parenting, constantly feeling as if we're failing at everything – a trend that has become much more evident in these anxious times we live in.
In parting, I will leave you with an excerpt from the very beginning of the book.
If you've read this book or intend to, please write in and let me know how you liked it. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!
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.
This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it's always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you're trying to be a reasonably good human being for.
Becuase there's such an unbelievable amount that we're all supposed to be able to cope with these days. You're supposed to have a job, and somwhere to live, and a family, and you're supposed to pay taxes and have clean underwear and remember the password to your damn Wi-Fi. Some of us never manage to get the chaos under control, so our lives simply carry on, the world spinning through space at two million miles an hour while we bounce about on its surface like so many lost socks. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye. We're not in control.
So we learn to pretend, all the time, about our jobs and our marriages and our children and everything else. We pretend we're normal, that we're reasonably well educated, and that we understand "amortization levels" and "inflation rates". That we know how sex works. In truth, we known as much about sex as we do about USB leads, and it always takes us four tries to get those little buggers in. (Wrong way round, wrong way round, wrong way round, there! In!)
We pretend to be good parents when all we really do is provide our kids with food and clothing and tell them off when they put chewing gum they find on the ground in their mounths. We tried keeping tropical fish once and they all died. And we really don't know more about children than tropical fish, so the responsibility frightens the life out of us each morning. We don't have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there'll be another one coming along tomorrow.
Sometimes it hurts, it really hurts, for no other reason than the fact that our skin doesn't feel like it's ours. Sometimes we panic, because the bills need paying and we have to be grown-up and we don't know how, becuase it's so horribly, desperately easy to fail at being grown-up.
Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights where we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings. Sometimes that makes us do things that seem ridiculous in hindsight, but which felt like the only way out at the time.
One single really bad idea. That's all it takes.
~ An excerpt from Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
And if you've stayed this far, here is a little bonus. The last chapter, which connects back to the first in such a beautiful way. Life come full circle!
The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we're doing the best we can, we really are. We're trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you're supposed to insert USB leads. We're looking for something to cling on to, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We're doing all we can to teach our children how to swim. We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.
Perhaps we hurried past each other in a crowd today, and neither of us noticed, and the fibers of your coat brushed against mine for a single moment and then we were gone. I don't know who you are.
But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. Because we made it through this day as well.
There'll be another one along tomorrow.
~ An excerpt from Anxious People by Fredrik Backman