The Winners: A Novel (Beartown Series)
“readers visiting Beartown for the third time will not be upset that they get to spend a little more time with its residents.”
Most books that clock in at more than 650 pages are going to intimidate the majority of casual readers, but Fredrik Backman has an advantage with The Winners—it wraps up his beloved Beartown trilogy that has already built a passionate following.
Backman certainly knows how to tease out an emotional response with his writing. The books are set in a small Swedish town that revolves around its hockey team. Beartown, the first book, centers around the titular town’s response to the star player raping the coach’s daughter. The second book, Us Against You, returns to Beartown and delves into its relationship with the neighboring town of Hed—a long-standing rivalry that has morphed to hatred, and ultimately ends with disastrous results.
Though many of these plot points are revisited in The Winners, readers starting with this book will not have the necessary emotional connection with the characters that they’ll need to carry them through this story.
The Winners is set more than two years after the end of the previous book and adds even more characters to its ensemble cast. Returning as part of the main focus are: Peter, the coach who has now quit that job and is searching for meaning; his wife Kira, a high-powered attorney who also continues looking for her place in her family and her job; and their daughter Maya, who is returning home from college. Readers also spend time again with Maya’s best friend Ana; Bobo, a kind-hearted former hockey player; Amat, an incredibly talented hockey player striving for a comeback; and Benji, another former player who left Beartown after being outed as gay.
There are other characters involved in the story whom readers have gotten to know in previous books, and still even more additional important players are introduced as part of the new story. Most important are a family in Hed, and a lonely boy named Matteo, who we find out had a sister that was also the victim of a rape several years ago.
Backman asks a lot of his readers to keep track of and build relationships with all of these people yet describes them all with admirable detail and care that makes them come alive, for better or worse.
The story begins with an enormous storm that upends the lives of the residents in both towns, and sets a foreboding tone that will continue throughout the book. The storm destroys Hed’s hockey rink, and various politicians and club supporters make another push to merge the two teams, causing strife, division, and threats of violence. Meanwhile, a local paper is digging into possible wrongdoings by the Beartown team, and the sense of dread grows.
Backman’s writing is sparse and uncomplicated, and as in previous books, he builds tension with asides from the very beginning. These mysterious lines are shrouded in warning, driving readers to wade through some of the slow storybuilding and needlessly complex plot threads to find out what happens. However, the foreboding messages are repeated so often that they do start to lose some of their intensity and feel a bit emotionally manipulative toward the middle of the book.
There are a few purely joyful scenes of reunions and hockey sprinkled throughout the story that feel like a reward for some of the brutal pain endured by readers, but even these are often visited with a cautionary message.
The Winners feels bloated at times, and a bit of tightening probably would have lent even more gravitas to the emotions displayed throughout the book, but readers visiting Beartown for the third time will not be upset that they get to spend a little more time with its residents.