Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman

Reviewed by Andrew Older

A fundamental desire to exist, to be more than simply a walking piece of flesh
and bone, to have any sort of impact; this preoccupation with legacy and meaning
defines much of the human condition. And, Fredrik Backman raises it as a central
issue in his new book, Britt-Marie was Here. The book centers around its titular
character, Britt-Marie, a sixty-three-year-old woman who just left her husband
after discovering he has slept with another woman. But, after such a long marriage,
after taking care of her husband, cleaning their house, raising her step-children,
and defining herself by virtue of other people, she struggles to find an identity,
stating that “it’s difficult to know who you are once you are alone, when you have
always been there for the sake of someone else” (Backman 69).
At her core, Britt-Marie is a socially awkward, intensely punctual, borderline
obsessively compulsive creature of habit; and, in the beginning of the book,
we find her at an unemployment office looking for work. Pickings are slim,
especially in light of the financial crisis, and after a number of hilariously awkward
conversations with the unemployment officer, Britt-Marie lands a temporary job
as the keeper of a recreation center in the small town of Borg, a town so bland
and uninteresting that the narrator says: “Borg is a community built along a road.
That’s really the kindest possible thing one can say about it” (23). After reading the
first fifty pages, the story is much like the town—aside from Britt-Marie’s steady
characterization growth, virtually nothing else goes on. But, both Britt-Marie and
the town co-evolve, illuminating each others’ nuanced, meaningful attributes.
Gradually Britt-Marie, at first an annoyingly uncomfortable person, begins to gain
dimension and sympathy.
Despite Henning Koch’s translating the story from its native Swedish, the
prose is remains lively and beautiful. A third person omniscient narrator hovers
loosely over the events of the book, telling the story in the present tense. But, the
sentences and paragraphs are never overly detailed, nor are they overflowing with
description; rather, it tells it how it is. Sometimes a tree is just a tree, or a bush a
bush. Backman does not give undue meaning to every single detail in his plot;
instead, some things just exist without a need to be overanalyzed. The setting of
Borg, then, acquires a simplicity nicely suited for a modernist, existential story.
Concerning a traumatic car accident that Britt-Marie experienced as a child, the
narrator explains her character in one brief paragraph:
The last thing Britt-Marie remembered before she passed out was that
she wanted to clean it up. Make it nice. And when she woke up at the
hospital that is precisely what she did. Clean. Make things nice. When
they buried her sister and there were strangers in black clothes drinking
coffee in her parent’s home, Britt-Marie put coasters under all the cups
and washed all the dishes and cleaned all the windows. When her father
began to stay at work for longer and longer and her mother stopped
talking altogether, Britt-Marie cleaned. Cleaned, cleaned, and cleaned
(56). The only way she knows how to deal with conflict is through the act of
cleansing, here both physical and metaphorically. Britt-Marie, constantly cleaning,
scrubbing, disinfecting, dusting, and rearranging cutlery drawers, often shows
signs of insanity. But, in her obsession with cleaning, we begin to see different
sides of Britt-Marie. Constantly trying to arrange her life in neat and orderly ways,
like that of a cutlery drawer, Britt-Marie always cleans up the messes that cause her
any semblance of unrest. But, life is inherently disordered. Britt-Marie truly grows
once she accepts this fact.
A host of interesting characters are what make this book what it is—an
agglomeration of unique and compelling characters that overpower an otherwise
boring town. The ways in which the characters blend together make for
unpredictable turns in the plot. The love interest of an old cop, the drug habits of a
group of teenagers, the quiet solidarity of the unemployed truck drivers, all of this
defines Borg rather than its buildings, geography or socioeconomic status.
As the story progresses, we understand the true importance of Britt-Marie’s new job. When asked by the unemployment officer why she wants a job, Britt-
Marie brings up the case of a widow who died alone in her apartment, remarking that, “She had no children and no husband and no job. No one knew she was there.
If one has a job, people notice if one doesn’t show up” (19). The story acquires
even more depth when Britt-Marie learns how passionate Borg children feel about
soccer. The town itself is falling apart: most of the businesses have shut down, there
is a great amount of juvenile violence, and the vast majority of residents are trying
to sell their houses in vain. Even through all of this hardship, however, the children
of the town find joy through their soccer team. Britt-Marie, as the keeper of the
recreation center, takes on the role of coaching the team.
A few parts of the book were certainly not as strong as others. At times, that
plot was overly simplistic and hard to believe. At other moments, it was overly
causal and lacked the sort of cohesive substance that more effectively binds a plot
together. For example, the following unrealistic events transpire: 1). the soccer
team doesn’t have a certified coach 2). an old, nasty woman who was once a coach
comes out of her house and confronts the council officials, offering to coach 3).
the council officials immediately conciliate. A lot of the action in the story seems
to serve the various characterizations, all of which are strong and effective, but the
resulting story feels incomplete and lacking. Britt-Marie is certainly a powerful
character, and Borg is perfect stage, but the plot lacked that same “hook” and
originality that makes the other aspects of the story charming and engaging.
Existence, especially the modern-day concept of being, can be a scary thought.
Often, our humanness makes us feel alone, eventually and inevitably consumed
by the omniscient, indomitable path of time. No matter what happens, no matter
how many people die, no matter what types of misery find their way into the
hearts of innocent men and women, no matter the tragedies that befall children,
the sun rises in the morning, indifferent to human affairs below. But it is in that
brief interlude between birth and death that we make our impact, and Backman
argues that we make this change in a binary way: 1). by being an independent,
singular person with dreams, goals and desires, and 2). by fashioning meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with other people. Britt-Marie’s relationships
with the people of the town work this way. Without any type of formal teaching or
interference, she makes the people around her better simply because she is there.
The book heartbreakingly deals with loneliness. Borg is twenty miles from the
nearest town, and the characters are isolated even from each other. Loneliness
becomes a powerful force in the modern age, especially with the advent of
technology, social media, and globalization. As the world becomes more and
more connected through online mediums, its inhabitants drift away from actual
human interactions. Instead of grabbing a cup of coffee or going for a walk, people
start online chats and Facebook groups. This sense of isolation increases when
one considers the impact of the 2008 housing crisis. Humans have always felt that
life is fragile, but the historic ‘Great Recession’ augmented this notion in extreme
ways. Now men and women could be detached from their jobs, from a means
of income, from a sense of purpose, all without a warning. Many people ascribe
meaning to their livelihood, and this delicate state of employment exacerbates
the fragile, lonely existence many people dread. Borg’s residents feel this sense of
helplessness more than most. Backman uses this extreme state of loneliness and
fragility in order to highlight aspects of his existential themes. When corporations
fire their employees or people abandon human interaction, how can they leave a
mark on the world? When a person drives a truck from point A to point B, he or
she impacts the place from where they came and where they arrived. Furthermore,
when someone talks to someone else, he or she influences both that other person
and themselves. Backman sets the book in the midst of the financial crisis in order
to highlight the need to feel necessary.
At the same time, Britt-Marie was Here explores the question of whether or not
we are able to define ourselves independently of other people. Can one acquire
an identity without human interaction? Backman argues that this is impossible
and contrary to the human condition. Instead, people obtain their sense of self
only through a complex series of interactions with other people. In this way
humans grow, learn and become themselves. A person who lives a life without
ever interacting with someone else is still certainly a human, but, Backman
suggests that in doing so he or she forsakes his humanity. For Backman, the
essence of humanity lies in how we connect with other people and we cease to
be human the moment we embrace a solitary life. Unfortunately, this inclination
toward loneliness is bolstered by modern culture. A new challenge to existence
is in overcoming cultural restraints and connecting in spite of the obstacles to
connection (i.e. social media and globalization).
Characters and readers alike must accept the fact that life is inherently cluttered
and messy. Rarely do things always work out in ordered, predictable ways. One can
never fully prepare for a death in the family, a financial crisis, the realization that a
loved one is cheating. Britt-Marie’s need to ceaselessly clean is an attempt to force
all of life’s events into her own conceptual, neat, orderly box. Borg and its residents,
however, show that this is not a permanent solution. Entropy constantly works
and tragedy is inevitable. Where there is great sadness, though, there must also
be great happiness because emotional constructs are defined by their opposites. The joy of Borg’s children while playing soccer, the pride their parents feel at the
tournament and the honor of Borg itself, exists not in spite of the town’s sadness
but, partly, because of it. As a counter-example, one can look at Britt-Marie at the
beginning of the story and see an emotionally devoid person. She is neither sad
nor happy. The only way to experience real joy and happiness is to open oneself up
to the possibility of sadness and “clutter,” for the clutter inevitably leads to strong
emotions. And, according to Backman, these feelings define another part of the
human condition.
Ultimately, Britt-Marie was Here is a sweet and compelling story about
individuality and existence in a modern world. At points, existentially tragic and,
at others, uplifting and touching, Backman creates an emotionally full story about friendship, the self, and how one should live. Despite some dearth of plot, Britt-
Marie is, all at once, an unforgettable character, a character who magically elicits sympathy, vexation and admiration.

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