Fredrik Backman 2016 Michael Joseph
When Janel @keeperofthepages highly recommends a book, personally I think this should be taken seriously. When said book is on Netgalley and publishers Michael Joseph send you a digital galley proof the stars may have aligned!
I have read some astonishingly good books recently, including the last book I read, Anatomy of a Soldier which I rated 5 stars and called outstanding. The same rating and words apply to this very different but equally excellent book The Scandal, published in Sweden as Bjornstad and in the USA as Beartown. Prior to Janel’s review I had seen Beartown around a bit on Instagram but paid it little attention, assuming at some point I may pick it up, knowing little about it and certainly having no idea what a gripping read it would prove to be.
Set in northern Sweden in the remote fictional town of Beartown, where ice hockey is everything, make no mistake this is neither a sporting dialogue or a hockey tale and absolutely should not be avoided on these counts. In Beartown, ice hockey is political, it is financial, it is social and it provides community standing, it is EVERYTHING. Boys play ice hockey and those boys are popular and cool. Retired players run the team and coach and failed players work in the factory and drink. Affluent members of the community are sponsors and have a role. But they all support Beartown and they all know and share the belief that ice hockey is everything and loyalty and commitment to that is a given.
And then something happens that challenges this view, for some it causes a rethink, for others it serves to reinforce their already unshakeable belief. Because in Beartown the junior ice hockey team are the saviours – more successful than any who have come before them and in with a real chance of winning the league. And for this sleepy, tired town the notoriety and the cash injection this would bring could change this town, revitalise it, save it from the poverty that is spreading and put it back on the map. For many it is inconceivable, what is alleged, what is said and for others, what is not said becomes intolerable.
Not the easiest book to review without giving away spoilers, but I didn’t know what this book was about prior to reading and I appreciate that and wish for others to have the same experience. But at its heart this book is about a community with a shared goal and dream and the junior ice hockey team carry this with pride. Players are given celebrity like status and the community cushions them in leniency, for they are the heroes for this community and so they are indulged. But within this community are friendships and families, educators in school and ice hockey, influencers in parents and sponsors and it is these relationship dynamics that make this book special.
Coming of age, the teen friendships are strong, loyal and all encompassing and everyone emerges wiser at the end of this harsh tale. This book is sharp in observation and tender in dialogue and with the scandal everything is tested and not everything survives. The characterisation was superb with all characters being multi dimensional and even those who at times behaved repulsively, elicited sympathy in me at other times. Some I know will stay with me a while. The ending of this book was satisfying despite some parts left for the reader to decide, for someone who likes all loose ends tied this was fine, it worked well, extremely well, as did the rest of the book.
Reminiscent of our times perhaps in the status offered to celebrities and the sometimes seemingly different legal and moral codes that can be applied, this book explores all of this plus the perception of women in a male dominated and valued culture – in its extreme in this book where there is no female ice hockey team and only every a supporting role for those of the wrong gender in Beartown. This raises questions for whose voice is heard, whose voice matters when the male species is so glorified. Then there is the role of team versus individual and for me, the notion of ‘taking one for the team’ develops a whole new meaning. Hugely insightful and eye opening, some of the observations noted surprised me, which I found shocking, this is a book that has enlightened me and I am certain will stay with me, and others as I recommend it everywhere.
Sad and shocking in parts, warm and endearing of others, this is a tale of hard lives, desperation and warped values. A tale of life, of community, of hope and success of ice hockey and finding a place, a tale of being someone.
Special thanks to Netgalley and the Publisher Michael Joseph for sending me this electronic edition of The Scandal.