Ever since I followed a friend’s recommendation in 2014 and read Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, I have been a Backman fan. The scary kind of fan who stalks the object of their admiration online (I really would like to stalk him offline too, but he’s in Stockholm and I’m in Mumbai, so I have no chance to sneak up behind him with a stick and force him to sit down and write his next novel now, so I don’t have to wait for a Backman book to emerge); knows exactly when his next book is due; and then harasses booksellers who don’t stock it with nasty emails to their CEOs.
Fortunately for the cowering booksellers of India, I was able to pre-order Backman’s latest novella, The Deal of a Lifetime, which meant that I had it in hand just a few days after it released early this week. It’s an import, which means I spent a crazy amount of money on it, and given that it took me only half an hour to read (I’ve read longer short stories), you might say that I was a bit short of value for money.
I certainly felt like that when I saw the slim volume emerge from the packaging; damn! I swore to myself. I could have bought three novels for this much money. Then I read the book, and disagreed with myself for two reasons.
Reason one is perennial: If even one book by an author touches my heart, soul, and mind in any way, as Backman’s A Man Called Ove did, I will buy every single book that author previously or subsequently has out just as a thank you for lighting up my life, regardless of those books’ length and quality. (This explains why I have a pile of really terrible Asterix books written by one-half of the writer-illustrator duo after the other half died. I owe the authors for the joy they have given me.)
But the more important reason in this case is this: Even though The Deal of a Lifetime is an incredibly short novella (really a standalone short story), it did for me exactly what A Man Called Ove did. It touched my heart, soul, and mind.
This is a Christmas themed story if you judge by its cover, but really it has nothing to do with Christmas except for that season of “goodwill-and-humanity” emotion that tends to permeate international publishing at this time of the year. The Deal of a Lifetime is about a highly ambitious man whose one aim in life is money, because money is power. This means that his wife and son were badly neglected, both while the marriage was still intact, and after.
The man never understood his son even as the child grew up. The son loved his home town. He talked about things like happiness and nostalgia. The son had no interest in money as the currency of power. The son, in fact, had no interest in power. So the man and his son were apart, living separate lives, each to his own.
And then, at the age of 45, the man got a rare kind of cancer. That sent him to the hospital where he observed a small girl and her mother playing in the family room. The mother and all the adults around the child spent a lot of time on games and stories of what the girl would do when she grew up. The little girl participated in these games and stories to make her mother and the other adults in her life feel better. To give them hope that she would, indeed, grow up. But she knew she wouldn’t. She had seen the woman in the grey sweater, the one who carried a clipboard and walked unseen into hospital rooms. The little girl knew her name was on that clipboard.
The man without a sentimental cell in his body wondered if he could do anything. He wondered why he was wondering — he’d let his own son go without a pang, so what was happening to him now? He wondered if his death would divert the grey-sweatered woman with the clipboard to his direction. But the woman said no, that could not be done. She could not accept a death for a death. She could only accept a life for a life. Which meant the man had a decision to make. If he gave his life for the little girl, not much would change. Just one thing would: his son would never have had him for his father. His son would be the son of another man. And could he do that, this man? Could he let go of his son so completely that his son wouldn’t even know of his existence?
I am not a sentimental person, and this is not an overtly sentimental book. But The Deal of a Lifetime strikes straight at the heart and hits you — in a good way. It’s stuck in my head, heart and soul, and I suspect it will stay stuck in those places for a very long time. Given that, I cannot say The Deal of a Lifetime is a short story. It’s a book that’s worth every single paisa I spent on it, even if the money might have bought me three long novels.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea