Crime and punishment in small-town Sweden
Michael Joseph, hdbk, 412 pages, €16.99
The Scandal has a powerfully simple central hook: in Beartown, a small place which exists mostly for its hockey club, star schoolboy player Kevin rapes 15-year-old Maya in the lead-up to a crucial game which could change the whole town's fortunes. Beartown, inevitably, becomes divided into those who believe and support Maya, and those who refuse to accept the fairly clear evidence.
But the book (originally published as Beartown, a better title) is a lot more than this two-line synopsis. Swedish bestseller Fredrik Backman skilfully traces the threads that lead into, and out of, this terrible act; he examines how every deed, every decision, every wrong turn contains repercussions, endlessly enlarging; he explores, with shining clarity, the inner life of the town as a whole and its inhabitants as individuals, in all their complexity and illogicality.
Importantly, Backman doesn't wallow in the horror; a potential pitfall, I think, when people write about something like rape. To point and declare, correctly, this is an atrocity; but then keep pointing and declaring until the reader feels battered and somehow, by proxy, guilty of something they'd no hand in.
Don't get me wrong, Backman never shies away from the violence and dreadfulness of it: physical, mental, emotional. There's no authorial fuzziness over who's to blame here: the rapist is, end of discussion. The crunching, sickening impact of sexual assault is forcefully conveyed. Indeed, the book is a strong denunciation of the evils that men do, an unapologetically feminist cri de cœur.
But Backman is a proper novelist, not some hack polemicist or ideologue, so there's more to The Scandal than stating an obvious, if very necessary, truth. There is good in the men of Beartown, too (most of them, anyway).
Backman doesn't churn out fatuous slogans about rape culture, but accepts that people are complicated and events are disjointed - even though, to repeat, there's no doubt about where the responsibility and guilt rightly lie. And by the end, enough courage and decency has been rediscovered to earn the town some degree of redemption, even if some scars will probably never heal.
Most importantly, he doesn't reduce Maya to the status of victim. She's damaged by the assault, yes, but she's also strong and loving and determined not to let this one awful moment warp the rest of her life. The book is filled with similarly memorable characters.
Backman has that knack for creating believable, richly imagined people. They shift loyalties, change their minds, betray themselves or hold fast to their own truth, sometimes even when they know it's just plain wrong: like we do in real-life. As one remarks, people are more than the sum of just one thought.
The Scandal isn't perfect. The odd line of prose is overwritten; Backman leans towards sentimentality, even mawkishness, here and there; a handful of plot-points verge on implausibility - would fellow schoolgirls really be so needlessly vicious towards a rape victim? Also, from the personal viewpoint of being a parent, it's all vaguely terrifying.
But the novel is very good. It constantly surprises you, which is simultaneously the most delightful and most satisfying of feelings when reading fiction. The plot twists, hearts turn, and people impress or disappoint when you least expect it.
And there's a huge amount of heart here. Backman, you feel, has a lot of love for people; he has hope, and optimism, that our better angels can triumph.
The Scandal is actually moving, in a way you don't usually get from reading; normally it's the cheaper (for want of a better word) sensations of movies or music that give such a purely emotional wallop. I won't say I shed tears toward the end, but I definitely might have had something in my eyes a few times.
It's also a tribute to often unheralded things: the resilience of a small community in the middle of nowhere, the camaraderie between a bunch of drunks and losers, the unbreakable bonds of family, the beautiful indifference of nature which makes most of our problems seem like small ones.
Most, but not all. Maya will have to carry the weight of being raped forever; but carry it she will. So ultimately, I guess, this book is a tribute to her: a young girl with the heart of a giant bear.
Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl