Author: Fredrik Backman
Pub. Date: Oct. 2022
Series: Beartown #3
This is the book I’ve been waiting for since 2018. I didn’t really like Us Against You that much on my first read through because I found it very depressing, but I did concede that it works as the second book in a 3-part series. When I re-read Us Against You a few weeks ago, I did like it a lot more knowing there was more to the story.
The Winners is a beast of a book at almost 700 pages. It brought exactly what I was expecting in terms of the quality of writing and depth of characters. We get to revisit a lot of characters: Benji, Amat, Bobo, Ana, Zackell, and the entirety of the Andersson family, while also getting introduced to some new characters. Primarily, a family from Hed, a young boy named Matteo, and a new star hockey player: Big City. I was sad to lose all of the hockey players from the first book – I never liked Lyt, but I can’t deny he brought a lot of conflict to the story.
I love how Backman continues to examine Maya’s story and its lasting impact on her family. In some ways the family has recovered and in other ways it’s still very broken. Kira and Peter keep breaking and mending my heart in every book and I liked the exploration of your sense of self discovery within a relationship. Sometimes we need to prioritize ourselves, sometimes we need to compromise for the good of our partner, and sometimes we need to both be our own person. When we compromise too much we risk losing what drew us to one another in the first place. At least that’s my cryptic take while trying not to give anything away.
Likewise, I loved where Backman took Amat in this story. It reiterated a lot of David’s fears from the first book about letting young stars rise too quickly. Amat had nowhere to belong. He outgrew the Hollow, while never really fitting in with the rich kids. He was propped up by the club as a mascot when he was a winner, but he was only useful to them when he was winning. I thought his rebellion was sad, but natural when you feel you’ve been used by your community and you know that no one would look twice at you if you didn’t win. The idea that you owe people something because you couldn’t have got there without their charity, but that they were only charitable because you had something that they desired or could benefit from. My only complaint was that I wanted to see Amat play more hockey! For a book about hockey, a very limited amount of hockey actually takes place.
I’ve always loved Bobo’s transformation and I feel like he really came into his own in this book. I love when authors take questionable characters and re-invent them to show our capacity for change. Bobo goes from bully, to friend, to coach, to lover. Overall, I’m not sure the inclusion of Hannah and Jonny’s storyline really added that much to the narrative, but it did give us the opportunity to see things from another perspective and I love how Bobo becomes the voice of reason between the two towns. That someone who starts off as a bully can become the voice of reason and a vehicle for good.
Finally, let’s talk about Benji. Is there anyone whose favourite character isn’t Benji? This quiet, broken boy with his strong moral compass and penchant for violence to dull his own pain breaks my heart in every scene. Backman really lays it on strong with the foreshadowing of Benji’s story and even though you know you’re on a train barreling toward a broken track, you can’t help but think that maybe you can pull the brakes and save yourself the heartache. But I thank Backman for the friendship he creates between Benji, Maya, and Big City. And for Benji’s big heart. He’s one of those people that you wish could see himself through the eyes of characters like Alicia, rather than through his own distorted lens. The scene where they all play a fun game of hockey before the rink closes is probably my favourite scene in the entire book.
But let’s talk a bit about the plot. Beartown has a very strong sense of plot. There’s a catalyst and you know where the plot is going, even if you don’t quite know how we’ll get there. I found that to be a bit lacking in both sequels. With Us Against You and The Winners, I felt that Backman had developed such meaningfully real characters that they literally walked off the page and he couldn’t ignore the pull to continue writing about them. There are major events in both novels, but they felt more tangential to the characters. In some ways the plot in the Winners felt a bit too random for me. The writing has gravitas, but the way things unfolded felt chaotic.
I loved the inclusion of Ruth’s story and the comparison between her and Maya and how these things often go, but I felt Matteo to be a bit too radical. I liked the juxtaposition of his character when it came to the funerals and how he and Leo and Ruth and Maya were living the same but different lives. But the ending felt like it was there to break my heart for the sake of it rather than for purpose. The inclusion of characters like Mumble are a brilliant way to draw parallels to the reality of how these kind of events unfold and how the silence surrounding them can tear us apart. Rarely do they culminate in the kind of violence we see at the end of The Winners, which is why I found it less relatable and impactful. I’m being purposefully vague to avoid spoilers, but basically I want meaningful social commentary that is still believable.
While I still really liked the book, my main criticism is that it was just too long. It’s a great story, but it takes so long for the plot to get moving and there weren’t even close to 700 pages worth of notable events. The entire book takes place over the span of 2 weeks and it felt like it dragged in the first half. It’s a character driven book, I get it, but it could easily have been 150 pages shorter in my opinion.
Anyways, it’s still a strong 4 stars from me. Even with flaws, any book and author that can make me feel so attached to fictional characters is talented. Like I said, I honestly feel like these characters walk right off the page into reality. They are so well developed that you can predict how they are going to act and react. I’m honestly sad to say goodbye to this world, though I won’t miss the heartache!