Reviewed by Ronnie K. Stephens
Fredrik Backman burst onto the scene in American bookstores with A Man Called Ove and Beartown, two novels which immediately solidified Backman as a master of ensemble fiction. Known for his keen ability to create fully human characters, Backman shifts deftly into nonfiction with his unconventional essay collection, Things My Son Needs to Know About the World (Atria Books, May 2019).
Here, readers experience characterization as rich and fully-developed as any in the author’s novels. The real gem, though, is a new and unfiltered look at Backman as a person; throughout the collection, he readily acknowledges parenting mishaps and failures, candidly speaks to his insecurities and vulnerabilities, and bravely tackles hard conversations like masculinity and evil in today’s world. Though not as overtly political as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Backman does not shy away from conversations about privilege and power structures.
“This world sometimes seems like it’s full of incomprehensible, unintelligible, unembraceable, inexorable evil. Violence and injustice and greed and blind rage,” he writes, “But it’s also full of all that other stuff. Love at first sight…Two brothers reconciled…And all you can do is decide which side you want to be on.” These flashes of honesty pepper otherwise lighthearted, humorous essays. The combination is welcome, as the collection never feels either too personal or too moralizing. As with parenting itself, moving through the book is a journey filled with laughter, chaos, discomfort, and, yes, lessons that challenge us to do better, be better.
For me, it was refreshing to read a book on fatherhood that neither centered itself on practicalities and finances nor took itself too seriously. Those books have their place, but it is no secret that parenting books marketed to fathers seem centered on the logistics of raising children, while books centered on the human side of parenting appear targeted to mothers.
Backman uncharacteristically turns the focus back on himself, telling his son early in the collection, “I just want you to know that I love you. Once you’re older, you’ll realize that I made an endless line of mistakes during your childhood. I know that. I’ve resigned myself to it. But I just want you to know that I did my very, very best. I left it all on the field. I gave this every ounce of everything I had.” moments
These brief moments of vulnerability ground the collection, but it is the absurd and relatable anecdotes that drew me into the collection. The author ashamedly recounts a morning during which he spills milk onto the diaper bag. Thinking it better to use a grocery sack until he is able to clean the diaper bag, he makes one terrible decision after another as he tries to get his son to childcare. Laughter abounds, and the shame of shared understanding is inevitable. Despite his stature in the literary world, Backman makes clear that he is every bit the bumbling fool that so many of us are in the first months of parenthood.
Ultimately, the book often lacks the nuance and sophistication so often attributed to Backman’s fiction, but the simpler tone makes for a quick read with broad appeal. Vignettes also complement longer essays, at once breaking the flow with entertaining quips and catering to the often unpredictable nature of parenting schedules. While the longer essays may require fifteen or twenty minutes of attention, these vignettes can often be read in under three minutes, which is approximately the amount of time between “threenager” meltdowns. As summer begins and children swarm, I appreciated the balance and found that it motivated me to keep the book near me throughout the day.
Things My Son Needs to Know About the World is equal parts hilarious and poignant charming insight into fatherhood and necessary retooling of masculinity for the twenty-first century.