Tuesday 8 August 2017

Review: The Scandal

The Scandal The Scandal by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

'Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger.'

That (and the cover) was all I read before I clicked 'request' on NetGalley. I didn't read anything else about the book at all, which is very unusual for me; I'm generally quite circumspect in my reading decisions. But this had me hooked. I'm not sure why. There are so many enthralling one liners for books that don't turn out to be that good that I always make sure I read more than the 'tag-line.'

Actually, in this case, I'm glad I didn't. Because I would have discovered that it centres around ice hockey. A sport. Sporting books are really not my thing: I don't play sports and watching them on TV or supporting a team is my ideal of hell. Luckily, no one else in my household watches sport, but if they did I'd retreat upstairs with a book instead. So, I wouldn't have requested it, and I would never have read this book.

I'm so glad I didn't read further.

Okay, it's 'about' ice hockey. But it's not, not really. It centres around ice hockey, but that's not what the book's about. Of course it's not. So, what is it about? How can you answer that? There's never one single thing a book is about (unless it's completely one-dimensional). This book covers an entire kaleidoscope of issues: from determination and perseverance, bullying and racism, powerful white men and powerful white women, friendship and rivalries, disappointment, hard upbringings, good upbringings, good choices, bad choices. Not really about sport.

Did I mention I'm glad I didn't read any more of the blurb?

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Originally published under the name of 'Bear Town,' this Swedish writer takes us on a whirlwind ride. (And a shout out to the translator whose name I can't find anywhere. I've mentioned it before, and I'll keep mentioning it, but translators deserve more credit. I can't even find their name! I think that's not on.) Bear Town is rural, down-trodden, forgotten. It's a small town in a big forest: no one's interested in it. Financially, it's a terrible place to live, but people still do - from the richest in their big detached houses, to the poorer (mostly immigrant) population in flats. But Bear Town wants to make it big, free itself from isolation. And there may be a chance.

Through the teenage hockey team.

What a heavy weight to fall on the shoulders of these teenagers, each struggling in their own ways with all the problems that puberty brings, and more besides. The strain also falls onto the coaches and the managers, mixing with their problems and allegiances. But this year the team are amazing. There's small, fast Amat; Benji who has no fear of pain; Bobo, big and overpowering; Filip, new and unsure; Lars; William. And Kevin. Kevin: the superstar, their sure ticket to making Bear Town a 'real' place again, a mark on the map.

There are other characters too, the women. Because hockey is a 'men's' sport, the women are left to organise, to cheer them on, to clean the rink, to make the coffee, to drive the cars. But these aren't any women. They're from Bear Town. And if there's one thing that can be said about people from Bear Town, it's this: they're strong.

There are some stunningly portrayed relationships throughout this book: Kevin and Benji. Maya and and Ana. Sune and Peter. Benji and his sisters, particularly Gabby. Amat and his mother. Maggan and Filip's mum. Fatima and Kira. Benji and a nameless musician.

Nothing could go wrong for this team, they have everything going for them. Except that something does happen. Something that turns the town upside down. And the old saying 'don't mix hockey with politics' just doesn't hold true anymore.

I highlighted lots of lines from this book on my e-reader, which I don't usually do. There were a LOT of good one-liners. Great ones, in fact. But it made me wonder: can an author rely on those pithy statements? Do we need so many sentences to make us really think; is there a limit to the amount of soul-searching you can pack in one book? I think the answer is yes; some of the lines could have been left out, just to balance the book slightly; it feels overwritten. Still, here are a few:

What happens to a town that doesn't grow? It dies.

People are good at feeling shame in this town. They start training early.

How big is the world when you're twelve years old? Both infinite and infinitesimal.

[His] mum always said that every child is like a heart transplant. [He] understands that now.

Sometimes life doesn't let you choose your battles.

The love a parent feels for a child is strange. There is a starting point to our love for everyone else, but not this person. This one we have always loved, we loved them even before they existed.

'Do you want to hear my best advice about being a parent?' 'Yes.' '"I was wrong." Good words to know.'

There are few words that are harder to describe than loyalty. It's always regarded as a positive characteristic... many of the best things people do for each other occur out of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

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Every day can mark a whole lifetime or a single heartbeat, depending on who you spend it with.

All their lives, girls are told that the only thing they need to do is their best. That that will be enough, as long as they give everything they've got... Children need the lie to be brave enough to sleep in their beds; parents need it to be able to get up the next morning.

...he was immortal in the eyes of the other boy.

David hates himself for not being better than his dad. That's the job of sons.

Big secrets make small men of us.

Loneliness is an invisible ailment.

Bitterness can be corrosive; it can rewrite memories as if it were scrubbing a crime scene clean, until in the end you only remember what suits you of its causes.

Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the best scenario, is uncomprehendingly meagre and worthless: just a few isolated moments of transcendence. That's all. But what the hell else is life made of?

There's a taster. There's a lot more of that. So, yes, it is melodramatic - in the extremes at times. But it is also a complete page turner. As I was reading this on an e-reader, I didn't really get an idea how long it was, but it's actually quite a hefty book at over 400 pages. Don't let that put you off. These characters and moments will stick with me. I enjoyed it immensely. And this is classed as YA, but can definitely be enjoyed by adults. Probably half the characters are adults!

Thank you Fredrik Backman. You gave me one hell of a ride.

Hey, and don't judge a book because you don't like sport. A decent book is never about one thing.

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Thanks to @PenguinBooks for using my quote!

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