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Book Talk: Anxious People by Fredrick Backman

By Mehr Sohal

If you love Fredrick Backman, this novel may be a let down. But if you haven’t read Beartown or A Man Called Ove, you’re in luck. Anxious People will most definitely be simultaneously a fun and moving read.

The cover of the novel reads “One bank robber. Seven strangers. And a really bad idea…”. That’s about all you need to know to grasp the essence of the plot. The entire 335 pages, more or less, revolves around a hostage situation in a small apartment in Sweden. Kudos to Backman for making such a bold choice, as it’s not so often one reads a book that is limited to one space. While there are several analepses that take the reader to the “back-story” of each character, the focus is not taken away from the bank robber (who in all honesty is not really a bank robber) and hostages (who again, in all honesty, are barely hostages) in the apartment.

As I said before, Anxious People might be a let down for readers already familiar with Backman’s work. That’s because it tries too hard. The novel tries too hard to be different, and too hard to be “deep”. When compared to his other novels, it is clear that Anxious People is different in its structure with a constant back and forth from past to present that is frankly just tiring; different in its narrative technique with an omnipresent narrator who reveals everything about each character; and different in its over-reliance on suspense. The author sporadically drops what I would like to call ‘profound-bombs’. I, for one, don’t like these aphorisms as it impedes the reader from coming up with their own conclusions and learnings.

Nonetheless, there is more to appreciate in this book than there is to criticize. For instance, it beautifully depicts a myriad of relationships, and the complexity attached with each one of them. The relationship between a single mother and her children, between a pregnant woman and her quirky wife, between an old woman and her sour husband, between a grandmother and her estranged children, between two colleagues, between a therapist and her reserved patient, and between an annoying real estate agent and her clients. If Anxious People is anything, it's a book about relationships.

The novel also brings to surface that people have far more colours, hues, and shades to them than is visible at first glance. Backman, for instance, contests that a bank robber always has to be inherently bad, and that a police officer always has to do the right thing. He introspects each character and their past and anxieties in order to justify their actions in the present, which brings them out of the world of black and white.

Anxious People serves to question morality. By the end of the novel you will probably be sympathising with the bank robber. Unusual, right? The author has successfully made one question their system of values. One question that I found myself asking repeatedly is– if a robber only wanted to steal enough money for one month’s rent (instead of millions and billions) for the sake of their children, are they a criminal and an idiot, or just an idiot?

There is more to unravel in this novel, but I will leave that for you to discover as I don’t want to let out any more spoilers than I already have. Don’t read this book for its literary value; but rather for the ample amount of things it will make you think about.

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