Book Review

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is one of the quirkiest, most delightful novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s equal parts humorous and tragic, bewildering and familiar—never just one thing by design. This locked-room mystery opens with a failed bank robbery at a cashless bank (hence the failure), followed by an accidental hostage situation at an apartment viewing from which the hostage-taker/would-be bank robber vanishes, leaving father-son police duo Jim and Jack so perplexed and out of their depth that they Google how to figure out this crime that didn’t actually take place, using testimony from eight hostages with wildly different, unhelpful takes.

Book cover for Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

It’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is.

Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

The hostages include Zara, a cynical bank manager emotionally paralyzed by grief and depression; retired couple Anna-Lena and Roger, who flip apartments to avoid addressing problems in their marriage; pregnant lesbian couple Julia and Ro, who struggle with the weight of their anxieties about parenthood; achingly sweet and grandmotherly Estelle, nursing a deep and familiar hurt; the hilariously focused real estate agent who, in spite of the hostage situation, is most concerned no one appears to show appropriate interest in the apartment or her cleverly named real estate agency, House Tricks; and, finally, poor Lennart, who somehow ended up in his underwear, trapped in a giant rabbit’s head, and a little regretful he’s wound up in this situation but along for the ride, regardless.

Anxious People is told through interweaving narratives that reveal how seemingly unrelated characters from varying walks of life are connected—a truth that echoes throughout the major themes in this novel. Backman employs a disarming charm and wit to broach heavy topics such as suicide, survivor’s guilt, and depression with a fresh and welcome frankness that feels safe and invites discussion. Zara, one of the most abrasive personalities in the bunch who literally carries around her anxiety with her, ended up being one of my favorite characters because Backman is able to demonstrate through her that we should all be so kind as to forgive ourselves for past transgressions.

We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.

Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

Given the novel is set in a small Swedish town near Stockholm, the concept of “Stockholm Syndrome” seems almost unavoidable, especially because it is derived from the psychological bond formed between a captor and his hostages during a botched bank robbery that took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Cleverly, Backman hardly mentions it by name, which prevents readers from noticing as they fall prey to a version of it while they commiserate with often unlikable yet sincere characters just trying their best to make it from one day to the next. Any one of us could’ve been trapped in that apartment. In fact, any one of us could’ve been that bank robber.

Backman strives to cover the full, messy spectrum of emotions that accompany uncomfortable experiences like anxiety, guilt, and grief, which allows him to winnow out poignant messages about forgiveness, hope, and love. The most striking result of his storytelling style is it reflects truths about ourselves we recognize only once we identify them in Backman’s characters. That is the point, of course.

That’s the power of literature, you know, it can act like little love letters between two people who can only explain their feelings by pointing at other people’s.

Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

Anxious People reminds us we are never alone in shouldering our burdens, even though it might feel that way sometimes. Through humor and heartbreak, Backman weaves a thought-provoking story that ultimately impresses on us the urgency of exercising kindness, compassion, and patience towards others and, most importantly, towards ourselves.

Book Review

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel follows a mixed-status Colombian family trying to build a better life for themselves. Elena and Mauro meet and fall in love as teens, their sweet romance a bright spot of hope against the backdrop of a brutal Bogotá. After having their first child, they set their sights on the United States for a better life, better wages, and better opportunities. They send money back to Elena’s mother in Colombia as their ideal situation is to work hard enough to secure ample funds for a more comfortable life in Colombia, but one thing leads to another, and they overstay their tourist visas. What started as a goal to build a better life in Colombia ends with a universal desire simply to thrive as one united family.

Book cover for Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy?

Patricia Engel, Infinite Country

Infinite Country follows multiple viewpoints, opening with a chapter from Talia, Elena and Mauro’s youngest daughter. After one (arguably warranted) moment of violence, she’s racing against the clock as she escapes a reform school and makes her way to a flight into America that will reunite her with a mother and two siblings she hasn’t been with since she was a baby. Her story is thrilling, she’s an interesting character to follow, and the first chapter (and that first line!) completely pulled me in; however, the second chapter drops that thread immediately and picks up another character’s narrative several years back. It’s not until about halfway through the novel that you understand what’s going on with the narrative structure, and even then, it’s a little disorienting.

Karina, Elena and Mauro’s eldest daughter, is a dreamer in the political and literal sense. She crossed into the United States with her parents when she was a baby, and we understand it is she who has compiled the winding narratives that make this novel, some literally in the second-person as begrudging contributions only a younger brother might provide, her own in the first-person, and the rest of her family’s in the third-person. Karina’s deepest desire is for a day she feels safe enough with her family to pursue her dream to be a writer. The very existence of this book is hopeful since it implies Karina got her wish.

That said, I would’ve organized the narratives differently. Instead of seemingly random jumps into different narratives, I would have liked something a little more linear as I think it’d be easier to follow the intricacies of each person’s story. Because there was such a large gap between Talia’s first chapter and her next, I was wondering for a while what her significance was since that wild child didn’t seem to fit at all into Elena and Mauro’s blossoming romance. Moreover, since she is their youngest child, we don’t even meet her in their story for quite a while. I wish I hadn’t felt so distracted by it in the beginning of the novel. It made for a winding plot that was difficult to pick up for me, though I wonder if it was by design. When your entire life dwindles down to making ends meet and seeing one moment to the unpredictable next, perhaps it’s difficult to forecast future goals until the ground beneath your feet is a little steadier. We do see that as the children grow older, and Elena and Mauro reflect back on their connections to their own parents. Choices for this family become clearer, although I wonder if it’s because options to pursue happiness and security also become limited.

The ending of this novel, while satisfying, seems rushed. I wish we’d gotten a bit more on Mauro’s journey back to his family. The emotional despair he feels as a husband and father when he’s deported to Bogotá is relatable, whether or not a person is on a journey similar to his, but I wish we could’ve read more about his struggle to find himself and also his drive to find a way back to his family. Mauro tries his best, and I wanted to see him realize his family believes it sincerely. The ultimate question this novel explores is how to define the idea of home. Are our characters yearning to go back home to Colombia? Is America their new home? What about any one of the several locations within America as they moved around the country, or even the final home we see them in? Engel argues the idea of home is something far greater, whose shifting boundaries cannot be mapped, encompassing territories impossible to chart:

Maybe there is no nation or citizenry; they’re just territories mapped in place of family, in place of love.”

Patricia Engel, Infinite Country

Infinite Country gives voice to issues of immigration and displacement that are all too common in our world but are often banished to the shadows of national narratives. The novel provides glimpses into the daily concerns of mixed-status immigrant families and their divided lives while also emphasizing universal truths that will make you really care about this family because they’re really not that different from your own. This novel is impactful, hopeful, heartbreaking, and so real, with a poignant message that will be relevant for a long time.