Two years have passed since the events that no one wants to think about. Everyone has tried to move on, but there’s something about this place that prevents it. The residents continue to grapple with life’s big questions: What is a family? What is a community? And what, if anything, are we willing to sacrifice in order to protect them?
As the locals of Beartown struggle to overcome the past, great change is on the horizon. Someone is coming home after a long time away. Someone will be laid to rest. Someone will fall in love, someone will try to fix their marriage, and someone will do anything to save their children. Someone will submit to hate, someone will fight, and someone will grab a gun and walk towards the ice rink.
So what are the residents of Beartown willing to sacrifice for their home?
Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending.
There's no life like youth, no love like first love, no friends like teammates.
I don’t know if I’ve ever cried harder than I did through the end of The Winners. Backman warns you from page one, but I’ve been dreading making it to the end of the series knowing that Benji wouldn’t get the happy ending he deserves.
But the truth is that stories about boys like Benji hardly ever end with them as old men. They don't get long stories, and they don't die peacefully in old people's homes with their heads resting on soft pillows.
Boys like Benji die young. They die violently.
By far the best book in the series, The Winners nevertheless follows the same pattern as the first two books. I think I didn’t mind the circular narrative as much because I did not want to make it to the incredible violence and grief that it kept promising. As the hate and radicalisation escalated, I just wanted to curl up in the moments of pure joy that were so fleeting. Bobo falling in love and being the man his mother raised him to be. Kira and Peter finding their way back to each other under threat of prison and defamation. Alicia and Sune and Bang being the best but strangest little family of unrelated individuals. Big City discovering what it means to be free. Maya and Ana overcoming distance to maintain their friendship. And Benji. Every single moment we get with Benji and his friends and his family, even if they’re all treated as his last moments because, unfortunately, they are.
Then they play again, the way they used to play on the lake when they were younger: at full pelt without rules. Uncomplicated and simple. Us against you.
Amat will remember this evening as the start of something. Bobo as the end of something. For Peter it feels like belonging to something again, for Mumble it feels like belonging to something for the very first time. For Big City it's like getting a second chance to be a little kid and fall head-over-heels in love with hockey again. How it feels for Benji nobody knows, this is the last time they see him play.
When Beartown gives, it also takes, so every moment of joy is overshadowed by violence in so many forms it’s hard to handle it all. The Winners is dark and horrible, and even when it tries to leave you on a good note, it’s hard to shake off the grief. If you’re anything like me, you fell for Benji when he was introduced way back in Beartown, and so The Winners is not an easy read. Though the implications of his personality and his life in the first two books make it clear he was unlikely to lead a long and happy life, Backman is explicit from page one of The Winners that people like Benji die young and painfully. Knowing it’s coming, though, does not make it easier.
There are a lot of other things that happen in The Winners, though it’s hard to discuss anything other than Benji. While characters like Rodri are easy to hate for the type of person they represent, it’s much harder to accept characters like Matteo and Mumble.
Matteo does horrible things, but there are so many moments where it feels like if someone had intervened, things could have been so different. And where Mumble’s actions are unforgivable, it’s still hard to accept how he chooses to atone.
Even characters that have been around since Beartown have uncharacteristic actions in The Winners.
Tails throws his oldest and best friend under the bus and assumes no one will figure it out and send him to prison. Teemu becomes all soft and sweet – right before going back to threatening and fighting. Amat stops training and gives up on hockey?!
It's late Thursday evening and all the black jackets from Beartown are sitting in the emergency room at the hospital in Hed. Teemu broke two fingers on someone's jaw, and a couple of his guys have broken noses from someone's fist or elbow. They're in a ridiculously good mood, despite or perhaps precisely because of that, joking and singing inappropriate songs. Above all, they're teasing Peter, seeing as the former general manager had to come here with his split eyebrow, and the nurses quickly decided to put everyone from Beartown in a separate room so that there wouldn't be any more trouble with anyone from Hed. Every time a nurse comes to call someone in, all the members of the Pack beg her to "take the boss first!" Then they nod toward Peter, wide-eyed, and whisper: "Please, don't take us foot soldiers first, help the Godfather! He's the one who gives the orders!" Peter pleads with Teemu to shut them up, but Teemu is laughing too much to be able to stop them.
"You lot don't take anything seriously, you really don't take anything in life seriously...," Peter mutters.
There’s corruption and storms and babies born and hockey and violence. And after reading The Winners, I’m sad and exhausted and heartsick. But there is joy, too. It may be overshadowed and seem too little to make up for everything else, but it’s still there. I'm glad this series ended on a high note - Backman seems to always find a way - but my heart breaks for Benji and everything that could have been.
Teemu and other black jackets are going to the hockey games again. Are singing again. Always with slightly heavier voices and a greater sense of loss now, always with a beer in their hands after the game when they walk all the way to the churchyard. Then they sit there and talk to Vidar and Benji and Ramona and Holger and all the others who couldn't come, so they know how it went. Every detail. Every shot. Every goal and every wrong decision by the referee. The beer in Heaven is expensive and the whining is the same as always, hardly anything changes, but one day Teemu brings his newborn son here and introduces him.
His son will grow up and decide that he doesn't like hockey, he likes soccer, and there's a hell of a lot of laughter in Heaven then. Oh, so much laughter.