I passed by Fredrik Backman’s newest novel, Anxious People, as I was perusing the browsing section of my institution’s library. I didn’t think that a book carrying this title was one I needed while navigating a global pandemic and deep political divisions in our country. I had enough anxiety in my life. Why would I choose to read a story about the anxiety of fictional people? However, my friend, one of the librarians, saw me browsing and suggested it. I’ve never been disappointed in her recommendations, so even though the title didn’t capture me, I took it home and I am so very glad I did.
Backman sets this lovely story in Sweden, his home country, where a group of people are attending an open house hosted by a real estate agent trying to sell an apartment (condo). It’s the day before New Year’s, a strange day to host an open house. This may be the author’s first clue that this group of potential buyers do not represent typical open house attendees. The group of people have never met each other before—they are strangers. In the middle of the open house they are surprised when a bank robber bursts into the apartment with a gun no one is sure is real or not. The strangers attending this open house become the bank robber’s hostages. The bank robber is running from a failed attempt at a robbery and we quickly learn that this robber is anything but good or experienced at holding up banks. The robber is similarly incompetent when it comes to holding hostages. As the story of this bungling bank robber turned captor unfolds, so do the stories of the people attending the open house. The chapters of this story are interspersed with flash forwards—transcripts of police interviews of those involved in the messy situation. The interviews are conducted by two of the police officers, a father and son, who arrive at the scene of this “hostage situation.” Importantly, as the story unfolds, we get a peek into each person’s life, including (as the title indicates) their anxieties. Even the police officers reveal their own insecurities as their stories become entangled with those of the robber and hostages. As each character shares their secrets, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, they form the most unlikely of communities.
This touching and poignant story reminds us that community can be a healing salve. We witness old wounds heal and scars shed as the characters unburden themselves of secrets and insecurities. The ending is sweet and touching but not sappy. Don’t be surprised if you shed a few tears as you read it. This moving story and its message of the importance of friendship and relationships stuck with me. Although the title initially deterred me because I thought I did not need to hear a story about anxious people in an anxious culture, I was wrong. This was a story I needed to hear. It reminded me that the world is a lonely place filled with lonely people but healing can be found in community. The kindness of others, even strangers, is cleansing and when we open our lives to others with transparency and honesty, we may just find the cure to what ails us whether we recognize what ails us or not. Pick up this book. You won’t regret entering into this memorable story.