Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Bookish thoughts on The Scandal by Fredrik Backman



The Scandal by Fredrick Backman, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith.

Synopsis from Goodreads ..

'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. This is the story of how we got there.' 

Beartown is a small town in a large Swedish forest.

For most of the year it is under a thick blanket of snow, experiencing the kind of cold and dark that brings people closer together - or pulls them apart.

Its isolation means that Beartown has been slowly shrinking with each passing year. But now the town is on the verge of an astonishing revival. Everyone can feel the excitement. Change is in the air and a bright new future is just around the corner.

Until the day it is all put in jeopardy by a single, brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who'll risk the future to see justice done. At last, it falls to one young man to find the courage to speak the truth that it seems no one else wants to hear.

No one can stand by or stay silent. You're on one side or another.

Which side will you find yourself on?

________


'So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe - comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.'


I find Fredrik Backman a very insightful writer when it comes to observations of human behaviour. I've read a few of his novels now, I really enjoyed A Man Called Ove in particular, but with The Scandal he has done something a bit different to his previous stories. I think all the others, however they might have touched upon serious or important matters, had a lighter side or tone to them on the whole, but here there is much more of an exploration of the darkness within families, friendships and communities, the buried secrets, the suspicion, the mistrust, sadness at tragic losses, regret at unfulfilled potential. That's not to suggest the world within this novel is without hope though; there are moments of joy in there too, and touching humour, but it felt heavy at times with the pervading rather gloomy and oppressive atmosphere. 

The enclosed, limited, cold and bleak world of this small town in Sweden, Beartown, is really successfully conveyed by Backman, I think the reader gets a full sense of the claustrophobia and limitations that many of the characters experience, the isolation in this rural place surrounded by forest. This is the backdrop against which the story builds. There seems little to celebrate or shout about there, and what matters to the majority of the people there is ice-hockey and the possibility of renewed success of their team would bring about such a lift in spirits, as it did in the past. That's why, when something absolutely terrible happens, so many of the inhabitants are thrown into a moral conflict and the way they emerge from it will show their true colours.

It's a difficult read at times, with the criminal act of rape that is the turning point of the story being very upsetting and shocking. But I found it a very convincing portrayal of a community and of so many different characters, young, middle-aged and older, all drawn so vividly and roundly, all with their own problems, anxieties and passions. The narration jumps around a fair bit to show different reactions and points of view to the unfolding events, and I really liked the variety of characters we come to know. I admit to knowing little about ice-hockey before reading, and although it is intrinsic to the life of the town and the backdrop of the plot, it doesn't matter if it doesn't overly interest you as it is the characters - their actions and motivations, thoughts and secrets - and the themes - friendship, loyalty, honesty, being a parent, bereavement - that really stand out in this tale. 

These characters in The Scandal felt so alive to me as I read, and I kept thinking about some of them whilst I wasn't reading, as well as after I had finished the book. It was certainly a thought-provoking read, and caused a bit of a 'book hangover' for me afterwards, as it didn't feel like anything else was going to capture my thoughts as this had. I borrowed this book from the library so must get a keeper copy one day. 

I was excited to see that there is another novel coming out from the author with the same setting, Us Against You, (Beartown Two) - the title of The Scandal in some versions is Beartown, a direct translation of the original Swedish title I believe.


________


Some wonderful quotes that stood out for me...


'Another morning comes. It always does. Time always moves at the same rate, only feelings have different speeds. Every day can mark a whole lifetime or a single heartbeat, depending on who you spend it with.'

'When I was little, my dad used to hit me if I spilled my milk, Leo. That didn't teach me not to spell things. It just made me scared of milk. Remember that.'

'So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe - comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.'

'...Ana creeps into the house and wakes the dogs, then takes them as far out into the forest as she can. Then she sits there with her face buried in their fur and cries. They breathe on her neck, lick her ear, nudge her with their noses. She will never understand how some people can prefer other people to animals.'

'If only she hadn't existed, the none of this would have happened, why didn't she think of that?'

'She does what she has done a thousand times in her childhood when the house stank of alcohol and her parents were screaming at each other. She sleeps with the animals. Because the animals have never done her any harm.'

'All men have different fears that drive them, and Peter's biggest one is that he isn't good enough.'

3 comments:

  1. Great post. The book sounds very atmospheric. I also like the quotations that you posted. Based on them and the plot synopses, it does sound as if Backman digs into human nature in some interesting ways.

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  2. Oh this sounds wonderful. I really want to try Fredrik Backman and this is one I haven't heard of before.

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  3. A Man Called Ove was one of my favourite reads of recent years so despite the author having done something different with it I must get hold of a copy of The Scandal.

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