Saturday 26 October 2019

#CBR11 Book 76: "Sangen om en brukket nese (The Ballad of a Broken Nose)" by Arne Svingen

Page count: 207 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Bart is about to turn thirteen. He's named after Bart Simpson, because it seems his mother wanted him to be tough and clever and able to handle himself. This is also why she's signed him up for boxing lessons. He dutifully  goes to practise several times a week, and one of these days, he may actually start hitting. His boxing coach suggests he may want to try out for some other sport, which Bart can understand, as except for having a pretty good guard, Bart is pretty dreadful at boxing. He refuses to give up, however.

What Bart is actually rather excellent at is opera singing. The downside is that he can only sing well without an audience. This means he mostly sings locked in his tiny bathroom, since Bart lives alone with his morbidly obese, mostly unemployed mother (who is clearly an alcoholic) in a tiny one-room flat, where privacy isn't easy to come by. Bart and his mother live in an old building where the hallway floors are covered in old rubbish, broken syringes and other unpleasant things that make it very clear that Bart can never actually make any close friends, because God forbid one of them ever wanted to come round to his after school one day. He's not exactly a bullying victim, but pretty firmly on one of the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Bart's life takes a turn for the more dramatic when Ada, the pretty, popular and persistent girl he sits next to at school (it's not that she likes Bart THAT way, she has a boyfriend in another town, besides, she's so well-liked and popular their differing social statuses pretty much span a galaxy) figures out that not only does Bart enjoy listening to opera, but he sings it as well. Since he's unable to sing in front of others, he makes her a recording, but forgets to make her promise not to share it with anyone else. It turns out that Ada is pretty bad at keeping secrets. First, she shares the recording with the entire class, and Bart's enthusiastic teacher won't stop nagging until he agrees to perform at the end of year school performance. Then, she unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep and stays for dinner. Sadly, the next day, most of the school knows that Bart lives in a terrible wreck of a building and his mother is an overweight shut-in.

Then, on the very day he turns thirteen, Bart wakes to find his grandmother bearing sad news. His mother, who went out the evening before, has been hospitalised and needs an operation to get better. His grandmother will have to stay with him until his mother recovers. It's at this point Bart break down and tells his grandmother the truth (which she's been pretty aware of for a long time) about his rather dismal living situation, and having unburdened himself, immediately feels like things might actually start looking up. Ada keeps wanting to spend time with him, trying to figure out ways to help him overcome his stage fright (including managing to sneak him into the hotel room of his music idol, Bryn Terfel, when the opera singer is in Oslo about to perform). Bart may even have managed to track down the man who might be his father, after all these years.

This is a book my colleagues and I decided to read out loud to our eighth graders this term. I have read other books by Arne Svingen, a hugely popular YA and middle grade Norwegian author before, but this book is by far my favourite. It's impossible not to love Bart fiercely, because he stays so achingly optimistic despite all the sad and horrible things in life. His mother is dangerously obese, clearly partially disabled, barely works and comes home drunk several nights a week. They live in a tiny, crowded one-room flat in a building full of junkies and society low lifes. He makes very sure to keep everyone at school at a safe distance, desperate to hide his dismal home situation.

Bart and his mother constantly lie to his grandmother about the true state of affairs, claiming his mother has a steady job and healthy finances. His mother refuses to take any handouts from the grandmother. Opera singing is his secret escape, but after just a few weeks of getting closer to Ada, all his secrets are out in the open and unless he overcomes his stage fright and puts on the performance of a life time at the school performance, he'll go from anonymous nobody on the fringes of the school yard to favoured bullying victim for the whole school.

Bart spends much of his free time searching the web for the father he never met. Unfortunately, all his mother would tell him is that the man is called John Jones, and that he's an American. It's obvious that his parents didn't spend long together, and naturally, there are a LOT of search results for such a common name. However, Bart steadfastly keeps searching, occasionally sending off e-mail enquiries in the hopes that THIS time, he's found the right man, the John Jones who is missing his Norwegian teenage son.

As someone who grew up with an alcoholic father (who thankfully gave up drinking more than 30 years ago now), parts of this book hit very close to home for me, and I had to actually read the last few pages of the book to assure myself that everything was going to turn out well in the end. Very perceptively, one of my students observed yesterday, when I was asking them how they thought the story would continue and end (we're now about halfway through), that the book has to end on a happy note, because what we've read so far, has been really rather sad and bittersweet and the story won't work unless things turn around and get better for Bart in the second half of the story. While I have read the whole book, my class as of yet have not, and I thought that was a very mature (and entirely correct) observation, which shows this kid has a very good grasp of how narratives are structured. I'm honestly not sure I was as insightful a reader (or in his case, listener) when I was in my early teens.

All the way throughout reading this book, I kept comparing it to About a Boy by Nick Hornby. I remember being surprised at how much darker and more serious the book was to the delightful movie adaptation. Bart, unlike the Marcus of the book (and film) doesn't befriend someone as cool as Will (Hugh Grant's character), although he does strike up a friendship with one of the heroin addicts who live in his building, and who mobilises many of the fellow residents to show up and take part in a day of volunteering to clean up the hallways and back yard of the building in honour of Bart's birthday. They even get him a bike (with the serial number neatly filed away) and a brand new bike lock they actually paid money for(!). It's not exactly the same as the expensive trainers Will gifts Marcus, but in many ways, a lot more touching.

I'm so glad we decided to read this to the students this term, and I'm also happy that my class seems to mostly be enjoying the book as much as I do. This book has now been translated into a number of different languages and has been nominated for multiple awards, both in Norway and internationally. So if you're looking for a quirky, bittersweet and very heartwarming read, I can very much recommend this one.

Judging a book by its cover: This book comes with several different covers, but this is the one we use on one of the editions we're reading to the pupils in y school, and thus seemed appropriate. The boxing gloves and the microphone are both very relevant to the plot, and nothing on the cover gives too much away about the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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