If you still haven’t read any Backman, please, take it from me, you should. The man is awesome. I may have only read two of his books so far, but they have both been thought provoking, clever, funny, stylish, moving and poetic.
Backman’s earlier work My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises featured Britt-Marie as one of the supporting cast. Here, Backman gives Britt-Marie her own book, where we see what happens to her after she leaves her husband Kent and ventures out in the world on her own.
Briefly, Britt-Marie is an obsessive and socially backwards middle aged woman who has been at her husband’s beck and call for almost her whole life. She made sure his apartment was (spotlessly) clean, his shirts were ironed and his beer was to hand. He repayed her (naturally) by seeing someone else. Thing was, Britt-Marie was fully aware of the other woman, but put it to one side. It wasn’t until Kent had a heart attack and the mistress called her directly, that she finally has to admit to her existence.
Britt-Marie then has no choice but to leave, and is forced to get a job, though she hasn’t ever been out to work before. She ends up working as a caretaker of a run down community centre, surrounded by a bunch of other social misfits and folk who are seemingly stuck in a dead end at the a back of beyond. If all this sounds quite heavy and depressing, don’t worry, it is written with such lightness and humour that you never feel bogged down.
Britt-Marie is a wonderful character, and by that I don’t mean that she is a thoroughly amazing human, or that she would be a great person to hang out with. Nope, she’s pretty difficult really, and completely socially clueless. But she is a great character – interesting, both likeable and dislikable, funny, awkward, and above all, she is very real. Backman writes about her in such a way that she leaps of the page – albeit in a very controlled way.
Britt-Marie is obsessive (cleaning everything to within an inch of it’s life), orderly to a fault (anyone who doesn’t organise their cutlery drawer in the right way is frowned upon) and very particular. What is great is the way that Backman neatly drops in just enough backstory for us to understand why Britt-Marie is the way she is, and to become more sympathetic to her ways. Backman is also a genius at describing characters through the point of view of others. So instead of describing Britt-Marie’s husband Kent from the author’s point of view, we get it through the filter of Britt-Marie. We still see that Kent is bigheaded and brass, but also how Britt-Marie feels about him, and the way in which she has excused and normalised his behaviour over the years.
Of course, without giving too much away, almost everyone in the town comes around to Britt-Marie’s ways, and, whilst they learn to accept her, they also teach her to change for the better. As a reader, you are taken on the same journey. Yes, she’s odd and annoying, but you can’t help but root for her, and be moved by the way in which she affects and improves the lives of the people she meets. It is a simple plot really, but her growth throughout the book is what keeps things moving and what ultimately makes it feel like a good story.
I’ve had to knock of half a star for the odd little thing that got on my nerves – as with My Grandmother there were a few little plot points and repeated jokes that I didn’t get on with. I know, I know, with everything else being so great, I’m sure I could have ignored them, but they were a bit like being on a day out with a small child who keeps pestering for ice cream – kind of relentless. But even though they were a touch annoying, everything else was great.
Title: Britt-Marie Was Here
Author: Fredrik Backman