This novel was a number one bestseller across Scandinavia before it became a New York Times bestseller. It is the first novel of Fredrik Backman, a Swede, who was born in 1981, and who has since written six number one Swedish bestsellers.
The principal character in this novel is Ove, who is impatient with and critical of everyone but the extremely patient and uncritical wife whom he adores. He grudgingly tolerates some neighbours and a cat which adopts him. His preferred adjective is ‘bloody’. Managers and other decision-makers come in for particular censure, because, for him, they are always serving some remote, uncaring system rather than the beneficiaries and customers of the system. He is extremely knowledgeable about all things mechanical, and his favourite occupation is repairing them, with cars and Saabs, in particular, a top interest. Everything, including people, should be orderly and functioning properly. At first, the reader may take a retaliatory dislike of him, but when we learn of his absolute love for his wife, and his somewhat backhanded favours for undeserving neighbours, we begin to accept him. His wife is badly injured and his unborn child is killed during a holiday trip to Spain. Every day he carries his wife to her much-loved teaching job, but she dies prematurely of cancer. To her grave, he brings fresh flowers and talks to her, getting her advice, which he can accurately foresee. He reasons he has had enough of life with its people troubles; he decides on several methods of killing himself so that he can be buried beside his wife and join her in the hereafter. In each instance, however, he is unwitting interrupted by others. When he goes to the train station to throw himself under a train, his intention is diverted by a man who falls onto the tracks and must be rescued by Ove. He unintentionally establishes a friendship with a thirty-year-old Iranian woman, her incompetent husband and her two young, troublesome daughters. When a manager who disregards local parking rules decides that Ove’s long-time enemy, who was once his close friend, should be taken away to a care home because of his dementia, Ove concocts a plan, on behalf of the patient’s greatly distressed wife to thwart the taking into care. Eventually, Ove dies having left detailed instructions for his Iranian neighbour to find and implement. There are three hundred people at Ove’s funeral, a tribute of which Ove himself would not have approved.
Mr Backman’s light-hearted writing makes it easy to smile at Ove’s obsessive attention to correctness, at the reactions of others to this correctness, and the others’ ability to understand Ove’s good intentions. The novel is a happy study of human nature from an unusual perspective.
On Tuesday, my wife and I went to see (and hear) Il Pirata (The Pirate) at Teatro Massimo in Palermo. I mention it because reviewing an opera has much in common with a book review. Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy
and the third largest in Europe, and as one would expect, it is not lacking in grandeur. Above the stalls there are six levels of boxes!
Il Pirata was written by Vincenzo Bellini, who was a Sicilian, but the premiere of the opera was in 1827 in Milan, because Teatro Massimo was built between 1875 and 1897.
The libretto was written in Italian by Felice Romani – with considerable involvement of Bellini – based on a three-act French melodrama, which, in turn was based on a five-act French play. The opera, however, is in two acts.
For those of you opera fans, the cast we heard was:
Gautiero: Giorgio Misseri
Imogene: Marta Torbidoni
Ernesto: Francesco Vultaggio
Synopsis: The pirate captain Gaultiero is shipwrecked on the territory of the Duke, Ernesto, having lost a sea battle to his old enemy the duke. Gaultiero, unaware of where he has landed, confesses his love for Imogene, who, ten years earlier, unbeknown to Gaultiero, became the duke’s wife under duress. Imogene comes to offer hospitality to the shipwrecked sailors. Gaultiero recognises her, but she does not recognise him, singing instead of her love for him. That night Gaultiero reveals his identity to Imogene and she explains that she married the duke to save her father from threatened death. Ernesto becomes suspicious of the identity of the pirate leader because of his wife’s apparent interest in him. Gaultiero manages to meet Imogene before he is permitted to depart, but he refuses to leave without Imogene, who urges him to forgive and forget. Ernesto overhears their duet and challenges his rival to a duel Ernesto is killed in the duel and the duke’s knights sentence Gaultiero to death for murder. As Gaultiero is executed Imogene seems to lose her mind.
This opera is packed with intense emotions: love and hate. The music fully supports those emotions, and while in my opinion it does not achieve the standard of Giuseppe Verdi, it is certainly very good. The voices of the three principal characters were first rate. The libretto, which was projected above the stage in both Italian and English, left out – for me – an important consideration: how did Gaultiero become a pirate? And, what’s to love about a pirate?
(As an aside, the Italian of the libretto is hardly recognisable. My wife, who is Italian, said she had to read the English version to understand what was happening. The Italian language has changed greatly in the last two hundred years.)
Fiction writers have been told: “Show, don’t Tell!”. In opera, generally, and in this one in particular there is a lot of showing: in the demonstrative body language used by the characters – the acting was excellent – and in the powerful orchestral music. This showing reinforced the emotive language of the libretto.
Two essentials of fiction were missing from this opera: a setting, and in-depth characterisation. The ‘sets’ were extremely minimal. There were only two scenes; one for each act, instead of the six scenes in the libretto. One didn’t have the feeling if ‘being there’. The costumes were late 20th century street wear, in some cases altered to show the effect of shipwreck and battle. Imogene didn’t resemble a duchess, and Gaultiero didn’t look much like a pirate. I’m sure these omissions represented real savings for the producers, particularly as the opera was staged for only three nights.
Author Alverne Ball has a post on the Writer’s Digest website in which he describes what he learned about the craft of writing from watching soap operas when he was a child.
Alverne Ball is the author of the crime fiction novels Blue Religion a. He is also the writer of a bestselling graphic novelsand the forthcoming, multi-issue comic series, Crook County. Alverne is the 2019 Tin House graphic narrative scholar and the recipient of 2014 and 2015 Glyph Comics Rising Star Awards. Alverne earned his MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College.
I have provided excerpts from his post below:
“As a young boy who didn’t know much about genre, medium, or even the basics of storytelling, I found that my first brush with a good story and how to tell one occurred every day on my grandmother’s couch watching daytime soap operas, or “stories” as we called them in my household. These soap operas were my gateway into worlds far removed from my own.
“Here are five important basics of storytelling I learned from watching those soap operas that translate to just about any type of medium in which you want to create.
“In every story there is a plot. But no plot is more evident than in a soap opera. For instance, I remember this one plot from Days of our Lives where there was a vigilante called The Pacifier who was catching bad guys in the town of Salem. Years later I’d come across a comic book called The Punisher in which a vigilante was killing bad guys in New York City. The two vigilantes could easily be the same, and yet the plots behind their stories were told in two different mediums and in two different genres.
“Whether hero or villain or somewhere in between, a good character is the other half of what drives a story forward. Characters are the backbone, the make-or-break of any story. Characters are the reflection of ourselves, our society, and a clear look into our humanity. Through characters we bond and learn more about our world and how we see ourselves in it.
“Soap operas have a plethora of characters who can change on a daily basis based on their needs, wants, aspirations, etc. But one thing that is consistent in these characters is that they are complex, just like any individual. Take for example, the villain Stefano DiMera from Days of our Lives. Some may say (myself included) that DiMera is one of the best and most unforgettable villains in all of villainy history. And yet, when we learn of Stefano’s love for his children and his complete obsession/love for Marlena, a woman he can never seem to have, I understand the affairs of the heart that afflict him and deep down, even though he’s the villain, I’m rooting for him. Think about your own work—where can you add more duality to your protagonists and antagonists?
Tropes, Techniques, and Devices
“Like any good story, soap operas employ a number of storytelling techniques that may go over a casual viewer’s head, but are part of a writer’s literary arsenal. For example, most viewers of soap operas understand the clichéd trope of “the character with amnesia.” But from a writer’s perspective this technique might be utilized to incorporate a dream telling, in which the writer conveys the character’s fears, hopes, or internal thoughts. By using the “dream” technique, information about the character’s past is given to the reader without having to explore that past, especially if it is not in service of the story.
“The same could be said of the “return from the dead” character in any soap opera, in which a character is reintroduced to the viewer as a way of also introducing a new storyline. But from the writer’s perspective, this trope could also be used in a similar way to introduce a new character to a story without diving into the character’s background or past.
“Soap operas are a great avenue for studying pacing because the writers have to conmvey so much information in a short period of time. That means Mark Twain’s commonly used phrase, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do ” is on display as to how every word matters.
“One good way to measure one’s pacing is to watch a scene from a soap opera and write down everything that you learn in that one scene. Now read a scene from your own work and write or underline everything you learn about that character in that scene. Compare the notes from the soap opera to the one from your own prose.
“A cliffhanger is what keeps you hanging on and coming back for more. I learned the art of a good cliffhanger from shows like Days of our Lives, All My Children, and General Hospital. Each one of these shows would reveal something about a character, such as one character believing that her baby had died only to find out that someone had stolen the baby. Or that a character was portraying him/herself to be a person that works in the medical field so that they could sneak into the hospital to poison or kill another character. The list can go on, but the understanding of what makes a good cliffhanger is evident: Leave them wanting more.
“Soap opera episodes are inherently written with at least one cliffhanger in mind because the writers know that they must entice viewers to return the following day, and the day after that, to keep finding out what happens next.
“So, there you have it—a beginning list of things that soap operas can teach you about writing. I challenge you to go watch one and see what else you can learn about storytelling from one of the oldest contemporary forms of entertainment. Oh yeah, and if you still have your grandma in your life, take some time on her couch and watch one or two episodes with her. You may just pick up on the best dialogue and character interaction you’ll ever get to hear and witness first-hand.”
While I agree in principle with Mr Ball’s points and that each of them can be applicable in literary fiction, there may be subtleties at work which affect the technique and the extent to which, for example, a cliffhanger can be applied.
There is a post on the Writer’s Digest website written by Brenda Janowicz which offers a different way of defining characters before we bring them to life on the page. She has ten questions for characters.
Brenda Janowitz is the author of Scot on the Rocks, Jack with a Twist, and The Lonely Hearts Club. Her work has also appeared in the New York Post, Publisher’s Weekly, Long Island Woman Magazine.
“The most important part of your novel is the part that will never be seen by the reader. It’s the part that’s just for you. It’s the part that only you know. Well, you and your character, that is. It’s the character study. You simply cannot write a good novel without knowing your characters inside and out.
There are so many ways to do a character study. It can be a letter your character writes to a friend, it can be a confession your character makes to her shrink, or it can even be a list of things you want to know about her.
Sometimes, when I’m away from my computer, I imagine my character walking around with me. Long line at the drug store? Hmm, how would my character react to that? Friend late for lunch—would my character wait, or just walk out in a huff? Car cut you off in traffic? Would my character yell out loud, or take in it stride?
My wonderful editor, Brenda Copeland, recently sent this great Stephen King quote to me:
“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” —Stephen King
I love that quote! So, we cut the backstories. Each and every one of them. And it hurt. Man, did it hurt! But, you know what? Their backstories didn’t change. They just made their way into the narrative in a more organic way. Because of those character studies, I know my characters inside and out, and I think that when an author really knows her characters, truly knows them at their core, that comes out in the writing.
10 questions you need to ask your characters
How old is she? (And how old is she mentally? Is she a 40-year-old in the body of a 16-year-old, or vice versa?)
Did she have a happy childhood? Why/why not?
Past/ present relationships? How did they affect her?
What does she care about?
What is she obsessed with?
What is the best thing that ever happened to her? The worst?
Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to her?
What is the one word you would use to define her?
What are some of your own questions that you ask yourself when it comes to character? Whar do you think every author needs to know about her characters?”
I think there may be other questions which, depending on the story, may be more relevant to ask. For example:
What are his/her character traits which support their role in the story?
What’s to like about him/her?
What’s to dislike?
What is s/he good at?
What are his/her weaknesses?
What are her/his values in order of importance
How does s/he behave when under a lot of pressure (reactive behaviour – which may be the flip side of normal behaviour)
This novel is another leftover from the summer reading, but I was very glad to have it, in spite of it looking like it had spent many days with a dozen readers, on the beach and in the rain. It won the Booker Prize last year, one occasion, at least, where I felt that what the Booker should be awarding and what the winning novel is merged into consistency. No scholarly text about a different world, with deep philosophical drifts. Rather, a gritty story about real people in a grim place who can’t help themselves. A book which gives us a memorable picture of humanity.
Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s first novel. A bit like a rookie baseball player hitting a home run in the major leagues in his first time at bat. Mr Stuart grew up in Glasgow, where the novel is set. So, it seems to me that he lived a life very much like that of Shuggie Bain. In any event, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, he moved to New York where he began a career in design. He wrote several short stories for the New Yorker, and his essay on gender, anxiety and class appeared in the Lit Hub. One feels sure we will hear much more from Douglas Stuart/
Shuggie Bain doesn’t have a complex plot. Agnes, a single mother of three is a goodtime girl, who lives for drink, partying and chasing men, and yet we respond to her vulnerability, and maintain our hope that she will reform herself. Her youngest child is Shuggie, a bright, sensitive ten-year-old, who adores, tries to protect, and is blighted by his mother. We hope that he will focus on his school work, and cut his mother adrift, but that never happens. Instead, we watch as Agnes moves from place to place in Glasgow, and man to man, blaming her misfortune on others, and unable to escape the grip of alcohol, until it kills her.
The book is long – 430 pages – for its simplicity, but none of it seems redundant. Each episode and each scene is relevant to the characters and their dilemmas, and the reader senses impending doom, making it difficult to put the book down. Agnes and Shuggie are flesh and blood characters: their strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities are vibrant and inescapable. Even minor characters like Big Shug and Eugene are three dimensional. The Glaswegian accent and culture are faithfully reproduced. The settings are often painfully clear. Parts of 1960’s Glasgow were not really fit for human habitation. In fact, I could feel the involvement of the author in some of the descriptions of places like Pithead, where the language condemned the place.
I think that Shuggie Bain will remain one of those iconic books about a particular culture, time and place that will be remembered, read and reread well into the future.