Most of us like to think we have a handle on our lives. We make careful plans, we budget, we organize, all so that when we come home after a long day, we have the peace of mind to enjoy a few moments of relaxation before getting back to business the next day. But deep down everyone knows that at any point, catastrophe can strike forcefully enough to reduce the calmest and most level-headed of us to a state of sheer panic. If that wasn’t evident before, it certainly has been since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Still, this isn’t something we openly talk about, and perhaps for good reason. It would certainly be a bad idea to invite your friend out to lunch, then casually remind them that there’s a non-zero possibility someone will call in the next five minutes and inform them that their sibling has been hit by a bus. Of course, we’re still reminded every once in a while that this and any number of life-changing events could occur at any moment. Reminders like these can cause people to do stupid things like trying to rob a cashless bank and then accidentally hold hostage a group of prospective buyers at an apartment viewing, which happens to be the plot of Fredrik Backman’s novel “Anxious People.”

The novel takes on a third person narrative structure that distributes its attention evenly between twelve characters who are all somehow involved in the hostage situation. There’s the bank robber, a father-son cop duo, a real estate agent, a newly engaged couple, a middle aged couple, an elderly lady, a struggling actor, a therapist and a bank executive whose collective anxieties result in easily avoidable stress and confusion. Though ostensibly about a hostage situation, the real content of the novel is the frequent flashbacks that reveal trauma in the characters’ pasts. Each step of the main action is interrupted by a flashback that explains why a character made the strange or poor decision they did. 

This method sounds confusing, but it’s surprisingly elegant in practice. The characters, though a bit flat at times, all feel distinct and easy to keep track of. There are few points where the reader feels lost. The novel’s clarity is in part due to Backman building an intentionally confusing and stressful scene to demonstrate the characters’ anxieties before revealing a small piece of information that comically deflates the situation and lowers the stakes. Backman does this frequently enough that the reader can start reading about a convoluted scenario with the trust that it will soon be resolved. This allows Backman to progressively heighten the confusion toward the climax of the novel without losing the reader. 

The narrator regularly pokes fun at the characters’ predicament, but with a compassionate tone that never ridicules and instead functions as a reminder that they’re all fundamentally okay. It is this delicate balance that allows Backman to construct scenes with real emotional weight in a story that’s essentially a comedy. There are only a few points where this balance slips. Jack, the younger police officer witnessed a suicide when he was younger. He later runs into someone else about to jump from a bridge and is able to talk them out of it. These two incidents are part of why he decides to become a police officer. These memories cause him a lot of distress throughout the novel, but the way this subplot gets tied up in the end feels over the top. Up until this scene, Backman does a good enough job of creating scenes with emotional depth out of situations with far lower stakes, but using suicide to heighten the emotionality of the scene felt unnecessary. There is also a scene where Zara, the bank executive, is speaking with her therapist and they have an incredibly interesting back and forth where they each struggle to take control of the conversation and avoid talking about what the other wants them to talk about. Then, at the very end of the conversation, the therapist plainly states what Zara is worried about, even though the scene itself demonstrates it clearly without beating the reader over the head with “the point.” These are, however, relatively minor issues that don’t significantly hurt the reading experience.

“Anxious People” is about compassion. It is about characters in distress who learn to use love instead of force to solve problems. The novel is especially salient today, when it seems like every week there’s a new anxiety-inducing world event. It gives us a blueprint for how to love each other in the midst of chaos. Backman effectively reassures his readers that though parts of our lives might be difficult, everything is going to be okay in the end.

Daily Arts Writer Sejjad Alkhalby can be reached at  

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